Real conversations – choosing values that support your chosen communication paradigm

On Friday, building on my recent article for Discuss HR, I talked about the need to stand close to the fire in the conversations we hold with others.  It is the most difficult conversations, in my view, that test our way of communicating with others.  In this article, I explore some of the values that underpin an approach to communication in which power is shared – what Roger Schwarz, in his book The Skilled Facilitator Approach:  A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers and Coaches calls a mutual learning approach.

Especially when the communication going gets tough – when we address issues that are in some way difficult or sensitive for one or more of the parties involved – we need to root our communication in values that facilitate effective communication.  We may seek to do this as a matter of organisational policy, promoting values across the whole of our organisation.  We may simply choose values for our own communication, knowing that even where certain values are espoused (in organisations, in communities, in families and so on), we do not, ultimately, have control over the choices of others.

One of the most important values, in my view, that underpins the ability to hold real conversations, is compassion.  I view this as the willingness to hold oneself and others as human and to accept everything that this involves.  When I think of John, for example, whom I mentioned in the first blog posting of this series, I am guessing that my e-mail triggered strong emotions in him – what Goleman calls an amygdala hijack.  It was from this place that he responded.  This can be a bit like getting drunk at the office party.  You did it.  Everyone involved knows you did it.  You wish you hadn’t done it.  You all have the choice to ignore it and pretend it didn’t happen, though this is not without consequences over time.  At the same time, restoring trust requires being able to speak about what happened in ways which honour everyone’s needs.  These include needs which are deeply human, such as John’s need for dignity and my own need for empathy as the recipient of John’s e-mail.  Sharing these needs can stimulate feelings of vulnerability unless we have a shared value of compassion.

There is a paradox inherent in holding the value of compassion.  Strip away compassion and it’s hard to hold people – yourself and others – accountable.  For without compassion the message becomes “it’s not OK for you to be this way” or even “because you have been this way, you are not OK”.  Compassion facilitates a value of accountability by saying, I will be present to you and to whatever is alive in you, and I will accept you as you are – and still, I will hold you as capable of taking responsibility for your actions just as I, too, commit to take responsibility for mine.

I have recently experienced this in my own life, having made multiple requests of someone close to me to talk about some behaviours that I have not enjoyed over an extended period of time.  Each time, my request has been met with a “no” and, since I believe in free choice and would not wish to force her to the table, I have had to come to a decision in which I hold myself accountable for meeting my needs.  Am I meeting my needs by choosing to be around someone who behaves, consistently, in ways which do not meet my needs?  No.  Equally, in reaching the decision to spend less time with this person, and to share my reasons with her, I am holding her as capable of making her own decisions (choosing her behaviour towards me, choosing whether or not to discuss our difficulties with the aim of building understanding) and of living with the consequences of her own choices.  It has been important, too, to hold us both in my heart with compassion following this decision.

Roger Schwarz also offers a value of informed choice.  By the time I make a decision like the one I describe above, I expect to have had a number of interactions such that I know certain things for sure and could, with reasonable confidence, infer a number of others.  The value of informed choice invites us to gather and test information before taking decisions.  In your own life, for example, you may be gathering information from a number of conversations about your prospects for promotion – do you have political sponsorship, for example, or is it becoming clear that – no matter your capability and levels of high performance – you are unlikely to be chosen for the role to which you aspire?

The value of informed choice implies asking questions.  For this reason, Schwarz offers a value of curiosity.  Curiosity implies testing assumptions by asking questions and this, in turn, implies a level of self accountability.  To put it another way, curiosity implies testing the mental maps we hold in the world against the territory itself.  This is not only about the “facts” of a case (what the profits in x, y, z region actually are, for example) but also about our views of other people.  If ever you have held a view of another’s hidden motive, for example, without testing it out, you have not exercised the kind of curiosity to which Schwarz refers.

This in turn leads us to a value of transparency – sharing openly and honestly information that you have including information about your own thoughts and feelings.  Transparency is essential in collaborative relationships, since decision-making depends on information and information is shared when we are open, honest and transparent.

Our values are highly significant in our communication with others.  At the same time, it is not only our values that supply the hidden fuel for our personal approach to communication.  Our ability to hold real conversations also depends on holding beliefs that support us.  This is my next area of exploration.

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