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Practicing Authentic Communication Published: Sunday, September 19, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

      Authentic Communication is a practical method of dealing with human conflict that reframes how people communicate so that strong emotions are not a liability, but an opportunity to discover more satisfying options. In organizations, more and more there is the need for team members to engage into difficult conversations. Those straight conversations can lead to either distress or harmony. We usually anticipate distress because difficult conversations often become emotional, leading us to confront, freeze, bolt, or gloss over the issues. But we could choose to expect harmony instead. Honesty and direct engagement can lead to higher levels of performance by deepening understanding and fostering teamwork.

         In the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Marshall Rosenberg states that everything we do or say is an attempt to meet a need. I take graduate courses because I need respect.  You write a business plan because you need clarity about creating a better future. In Rosenberg's model, needs are by definition universal; true of every human being- everyone needs respect or clarity at one time or another. What varies is how people choose to meet these needs. Our needs might be the same, but our strategies might be in conflict. For example, two people might need to contribute to the sustainability of organization, but one takes the position “We have to hire more people,” and another believes, “We have to fire more people.” Rosenberg suggests that understanding each other’s needs can open the door to new visions that can satisfy all parties.

          In a fast-paced work place, we often tell ourselves that we don't have time for feelings. But ignoring them, and by extension ignoring our needs, may actually sabotage our productivity. Employee emotions are fundamentally related to, and actually drive bottom-line success in a company. (Bates, 2004, February). By paying attention to feelings and needs, Authentic Communication helps cultivate the sense that “I matter, you matter, we matter,” which can improve relationships, build team spirit and contribute to the growth of the organization.

          To practice Authentic Communication we must first be especially clear about the distinction between observations and judgments. The statement, “John is a poor manager,” at first might sound like an observation. As far as you are concerned, it is a fact: John is not doing a good job-anyone who worked with him would agree. But this statement offers no clear observations. All we have is an evaluative word, “poor.” A clean observation, on the other hand, might sound like, “John tore up the report, pounded his fist on the table, and did not say goodbye when he left.”  Or perhaps your evaluation comes from more subtle observations, such as “John raised his eyebrows when an employee suggested bonuses.”  However, we do not know what the raised eyebrows mean unless we check. Perhaps John raised his eyebrow because he was surprised that the employee had read his mind.  Whenever we state what we have observed, rather than how we interpreted the situation, we reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding and defensiveness and open the door to authentic conversations.

          Distinguishing feelings from thoughts is the second discipline required to practicing authentic dialogues. Someone who is unaccustomed to identifying and articulating feelings can easily confuse them with thoughts or evaluations.  How often have you heard “I feel manipulated” or “I feel like leaving” or “I feel that this conversation is going nowhere”?  These are all examples of the word “feeling” being used to describe what someone is thinking.  “Manipulated” is not a feeling; it is what I think someone is doing to me. When you hear someone express a feeling that implies an action happening outside of the body-for example, "I feel rejected"-you can help translate that statement into a genuine internal feeling. “I feel rejected” may become “I feel disappointed or sad.” To translate, simply ask, “How do you feel when you think someone is rejecting you?”

          Developing awareness of needs before strategies is the third discipline. There are many more words that describe basic needs, which we sometimes refer to as values, wants or desires. We invite more clarity when we distinguish between needs and the thousands of strategies that we might choose to meet them. Team members often entangle themselves in challenging conversations by insisting on a position or strategy without first understanding each other's needs. Susan and Jack, for example, were at odds because they had different positions (hiring and firing) for needs that were actually quite similar (accomplishment, proficiency, security or sustainability). When we insist on a solution before we have explored everybody's needs, our plans are more likely to run into trouble. When we understand everyone's needs first, the resulting solutions are more likely to be effective and satisfying for all involved. We get buy-in and cooperation that result in long-term productivity. 

          Making requests, not demands, is the fourth discipline of authentic communication. People speak because they want something. Usually, they want action, to connect with others, or simply to be heard. Too often, however, people fail to make their request clear and expect others to figure them out. When using Authentic Communication, we learn to listen for implied requests.  Sometimes we help someone craft their request by saying something like, “It sounds like you need progress. Do you have a request?” We can help people distinguish between requests and demands. “Do it my way,” is more likely to invite submission or rebellion than teamwork. Alternatively, when people ask for what they want and are obviously willing to revise their positions, their requests invite creativity. When groups recognize they have a full range of choices, they generate more options. 

          Today's leaders who want to develop an engaged workforce need to pay attention to what people care about. Employees want to commit to companies, because doing so satisfies a powerful and basic human need to connect with and contribute to something significant.” Authentic Communication can help both. By providing a framework for people to express honest feelings in the work place, we build awareness of what people need.  Honesty does not have to be brutal. Instead of equating authenticity with blurting out our cruelest thoughts, we can use honest dialogue to build awareness of what we need. Open dialogue is not about determining who is right or wrong, or claiming higher moral ground. We can cultivate openness and inclusion by encouraging each person to express their passion, although not at the expense of other stakeholders. By encouraging people to listen to needs-before exploring the strategies used to fulfill them-Authentic Communication opens new perspectives that lead to personal growth, organizational effectiveness, and win-win solutions.

Copyright 2010 QBS, Inc.
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