Real conversations: creating ground rules for effective communication

Recently, I wrote a posting for Discuss HR on communication, identifying a number of elements which, together, comprise our approach to communication.  In this posting I expand on what I wrote for Discuss HR, writing about some of the areas in which we can set ground rules for communication.

The more you can translate your aspirations into ground rules for effective communication, the more you can implement an approach in line with your chosen paradigm. A number of disciplines and approaches have chosen to do this and some of them have in common areas in which they set ground rules.

One of these areas, for example, is building and maintaining connection – rapport.  Ian McDermott, author and co-author of many books on NLP, including Way of NLP, sees rapport as one of the four pillars of success.  For him, rapport (with ourselves, with others) is not just about communication, it’s also about our success in the broadest sense.  Marshall Rosenberg, in the field of nonviolent communication (NVC) emphasises maintaining connection as a priority in communication.  Rosenberg’s invitation to connect first and only then to correct, reminds us that it’s hard for others to hear what we have to say if they do not, first, feel a sense of connection with us.  By adopting this as a rule, you remind yourself (and others) that communication is about building and maintaining relationships first. Any other outcomes depend on your relationship with others in the moment.

Another rule which is reflected in a number of different approaches to communication is, in the words of Roger Schwarz (author of The Skilled Facilitator Approach) to focus on interests, not positions.  Marshall Rosenberg puts the same point another way, inviting people to see beyond the immediate message to the needs that underpin the message.  This rule is at the core of approaches to negotiation and mediation.  It also has value in our every day communication – with ourselves, as well as with each other.

It seems to me that any additional rules are in support of these two rules and that these two rules imply a particular paradigm – one in which the emphasis is on a “win, win” approach to communication.  This is an approach in which everyone’s needs matter and power is shared – a “power with” rather than a “power over” paradigm of communication.  The rules for communication may be ones we adopt ourselves, no matter what the approach of others.  Perhaps they are rules we jointly agree to observe in a particular relationship or context.  Either way, they are designed to make it more likely that our communication will be effective.

Roger Schwarz, in his Skilled Facilitator Approach, offers a number of rules which pre-empt some of the most common communication problems. He invites people to test their assumptions and inferences, for example, and also to explain their reasoning and intent. Looking back on my own communication with John, whom I mentioned in my first posting in this series, I can see that I could have done more to make my own intentions crystal clear and that this, in turn, might have made a misunderstanding less likely.

Marshall Rosenberg, in his book Nonviolent Communication:  A Language for Life, distills a needs-based approach into four simple steps.  He invites us to replace the language of judging with clear observations (step one).  Acording to this rule, for example, we might replace a conclusion (“you’re always late at your desk in the morning”) with a precisely observed statement (“I have seen you arrive after 9am, which is your official start time, two or three times each week for the last six weeks or more.  As a result, I’m starting to think of you as someone who is always late for work”).  His is also a heart-based approach, so that he invites us to share our feelings (step two) as well as our needs (step three) or to seek to connect with the feelings and needs of others.  Only then do we make a clear and specific request (step four) such as “Would you be willing to tell me what you are hearing so that I can know how clearly I’ve expressed myself?”

I sometimes wonder if our investment in improving our communications skills – our personal skills or those of a whole organisation – are predicated on the idea that improved skills make for greater ease in the communications process.  I would add that, for me, this is one area when the opposite is also true.  Effective approaches to communication can make it easier, for example, to discuss the undiscussable.  They can make it clearer where the source of a misunderstanding lies.  At the same time, communication depends on the willing participation of everyone involved and is limited by our own – and others’ – current level of skill.

Take John, for example, whom I wrote about in my first blog of this series.  As I write, I experience both needs met and needs unmet in relation to our correspondence.  John has chosen to withdraw from the group of which we were both members as a way to improve his management of his time. He’s also chosen not to have any of the discussions which might help to rebuild our sense of connection. And me? I am ready – pleased – to support John in doing what’s right for him and in this way to meet my need for contribution.  I have also invited him to join me in the kind of dialogue that repairs relationships – a request to which he has so far not responded.  I feel sad that when I think that a number of needs – for connection, for example, and for respect and consideration – are not currently being met.  At the same time, I’m trusting he’ll do that …when he’s ready.

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