Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Those difficult conversations...

Recently I've been working on developing my skills as a workplace mediator, refreshing techniques I have developed and learned over the years (and losing the odd bad habit too.)

After posting a musing on the issue of opening a difficult conversation, I was asked by a Tweeter for some thoughts on handling such situations earlier today. This is a huge subject, and one I can only hope to scratch the surface of in a single blog post. However, it's given me plenty of food for thought and I have plans to expand on the topic in further posts. Here though I'd like to look at the technique of 'Non-violent Communication' as set out by American psychologist- and hugely engaging speaker- Marshall Rosenberg.

Non-violent communication (NVC) sets out a process whereby parties in conflict can exchange information and share their positions in a way that is peaceful, constructive and geared towards finding common ground and resolution.

Thinking about conflict and disagreement, how do you approach the other person? In fact, do you approach them- or do you do your damnedest to avoid that discussion?

NVC depends on the belief that all people can feel compassion and act upon that- no matter how opposite their view may be to your own. Rosenberg states that people only resort to violence or negative behaviour that creates harm (whether for themselves or others) because they lack the strategies to effectively interact and address the genuine needs involved.

The theory is that all conflict arises because a need is not being met: for example, that may be denying someone a promotion at work that results in them feeling they are being denied their basic need for security and respect. A conflict develops, and must be addressed before bigger problems arise.

Its a personal opinion, but I find Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to be a great concept- but what a terrible name. I prefer the slightly less clunky 'Compassionate Communication'. Whatever you decide to call it, the basics remain the same: the approach focuses on three aspects of communication: self-empathy (defined as a strong awareness of our own personal experiences), empathy (described as actively listening to others with understanding and compassion), and honest self-expression (authentic expression of feelings, experiences and information in a way that inspires compassion in others.)

The simplest way to put NVC to work for you would be by developing a conversation through four steps:


Opening a conversation designed to address a conflict isn't easy- get it wrong and the process is doomed. Avoid challenging- instead of saying "You've really wound me up by sending me work related emails late at night", set out your position in such a way that it's a simple statement of what you've seen happening. Try "I've had several late night emails from you this week." It's an observation, not a challenge, and the absence of a defensive response enables you to move forward.


Exactly what it says on the tin! Tell them how what you've observed made you feel. Be clear and respectful- they may be completely unaware. For example, "You've really wound me up!" is inflammatory- "I feel frustrated and angry" sees you take ownership of your emotions and enables them to see the effect their actions have had. Don't fall into the trap of repeating yourself- state how you feel or have felt, and move forward.


Set out how your needs have not been met- it may be a need for security and respect as above, or a basic need for a comfortable working environment that has not been met. Tell them clearly what it is you need to resolve things.


Here's your chance to make it clear to them what it is you want to put things right. Be polite, respectful and mindful that they may be shocked by what you've said. They may feel bad, or they may be confused as to what is expected of them.

Using this technique to open a difficult conversation is no magic bullet, but it's highly effective, and far more conducive to resolution than a confrontation or stand-up row!

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