Practical Ideas to Keep Workplace Relationships Satisfying
By Sylvia Haskvitz
Workplace relationships are complex. Each employee brings their unique self to work. Their background, perspective, emotional triggers, and working style. Add to this the dynamics of power relations, and the fact that often workplace communication now takes place at our computer keyboards rather than face-to-face.
With all that we juggle in the workplace, it’s no wonder the stress of just getting along can often dramatically affect how much we like our job.
It’s important to remember that you and your coworkers also share some important commonalities.
Needs for respect, contribution, acknowledgment and appreciation are common human needs in the workplace. A need to accomplish specific goals and fulfill certain dreams may also be part of the mix. And the need for belonging often surfaces when people are engaging in workplace fun and banter.
Even with the best of intentions, we may engage in communication that keeps these needs from being met – for ourselves or our coworkers. To keep your workplace relationships – and your job – satisfying, consider avoiding some of these common communication mistakes:
1. Speaking to the Boss or Co-Workers Instead of the Person Whose Behavior has Triggered Unpleasant Feelings in You
“Sherry is so rude,” we may say to our office mate. Commonly referred to as gossip, this type of communication often connects with one person or people at the expense of someone else.
When we jump on someone’s gossip train we begin to create “enemy images” of the person we’re talking about – we put people in boxes or label them. Neither is likely to contribute to a harmonious workplace.
Unfortunately, when we hold our perceptions as truth (in this case, the label of “rude”) without hearing the other person’s experience, we add to the separateness we are already experiencing.
We often gossip when we are uncomfortable telling our truth directly to the person involved. This could be because we don’t know how to tell them without getting angry, we’re afraid of their response, or we’re worried how they’ll hear the message.
As an antidote to gossip, we may choose to speak our truth directly using observations, feelings, needs and a clear request.
2. Taking Other Peoples' Words Personally
Any time someone is communicating to us, their message is about the person’s needs and not about us. When we think the message is about us, it’s easy to become defensive.
Listen for the need beneath the message. “I need you to only receive clients in your zip code.” Translation — “You’d like to know that we are working together as a team and I am playing by the same rules as you?”
3. Stating an Evaluation as a Fact
For example, “She doesn’t do anything around here.”
Instead check it out: “When I asked if you would be willing to complete the report by 5:00 p.m. because I had an emergency, and I heard you say, ‘No problem’ and the following day the report was not completed, I became confused. I’d like clarification. Can you tell me what your understanding was of our conversation?”
4. Not Stating a Clear Request
“I need you to go to the meeting at 10:00 a.m.,” sounds like a clear request to many of us. What makes it unclear is that we are confusing needs and requests.
Requests connect what I want from someone. Here’s an example: “I need support in this meeting at 10:00 a.m. Are you willing to join me?” (The last sentence is the request.)
5. Making Demands Instead of Requests
“You must be there at 10:00 a.m. and if you don’t show up, don’t bother coming to work tomorrow.”
When we make requests, our intention is to ask for what we want without being wedded to the response that we would like. “I’m uncomfortable doing this alone and really need help. Will you meet me at 10:00 a.m. to discuss how we can work together as a team?”
If the response is “no” we willingly find other ways to meet our needs for support.
6. Conveying Our Anxiety as an Attack
When we’ve engaged in workplace communication and we are feeling anxious, fearful or concerned and we are not conscious of those feelings or do not acknowledge them either to ourselves or out loud, the fear may come out in a tone that is interpreted as an attack.
Example: We may ask a question without any vulnerability first — “What did you do that for?”
Here’s another way to respond: “I feel anxious and want clarification. I was remembering an agreement to call the client only after we had talked to George first. Was that your understanding as well?”
7. Listening With One Ear
At work we’re often distracted, juggling several things at the same time. People want to be heard and know that their needs matter.
If someone’s message is taking longer than we’d like or it’s not a time that works for us to listen, we can speak our truth about this. Here’s one way: “I’m torn — I want to hear what you have to say and I have five things on my plate at this moment. Can we meet over lunch to talk about this? Or can you give me the reader’s digest version?”
Another possibility may be: “I understand how much you want me to hear the background to this story and I’m really rushed right now. Can you tell me what you’d like from me in telling me the story so that I can support you in a way you’d like?”
Workplace Relationships Can Be Intense
You may work in a field where life and death decisions are being made moment-to-moment, or it may just seem like every decision is a matter of life or death.
When communication matters and working together is crucial for getting the job done, you may want to slow down in order to understand each other and connect. In the slowing down, both quality and efficiency are enhanced and once there is connection, the thinking, planning and doing all seem to fall into place.
Sylvia Haskvitz, MA, RD, has worked as a communication consultant with over 200 businesses and organizations for the past 20 years, and has been a CNVC certified trainer since 1989. She holds a Masters of Arts degree in Speech and Communication with a focus on International and Intercultural Communication from San Francisco State University.
She writes a monthly column — Finding the “Right” Words — for the Desert Times Newspaper and is the author of Eat by Choice, Not by Habit, a contributing author for the book Healing Our Planet, Healing Ourselves and she co-wrote the chapter Conflict Resolution and Understanding of Self; Key Aspects of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) for the college textbook, One Paradigm, Many Worlds; Conflict Resolution Across the Disciplines. She was the host of the television show People Skills and the radio show Call in a Conflict, both in Northern California.
Focus on Needs
Stay focused on needs/values. (Have a needs list available for people to reference.) People can more readily accept and value what’s being said when needs are clearly stated.
It’s easier to warm up to the statement “The way this case was handled didn’t meet my needs for fairness and equality and I’m wondering if you’re willing to explore with me how it might be handled differently in future” than the statement “I was treated unfairly and that’s unacceptable.”
Needs before solutions. Unfortunately, most people are trained to go immediately to solutions without identifying the needs. An example of this is, “I need someone to take over ordering supplies.” Even though the word “need” has been used, a solution has been expressed instead of a need.
It would be more accurate to say, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and have a need for support. Is there anyone who would be willing to take over this task?”
A different example would be “We’ve all agreed that providing quality care to our clients is very important. We’ve also agreed that the well-being of our staff is equally important. Does anyone have any ideas about how we can ensure meeting both these needs in the face of cutbacks?”
Making clear reference to needs makes this a significantly different message from: “The cutbacks are unfortunate but we’ll just have to deal with it and overcome the challenges.”
Track the needs that are on the table and have clarity on whose needs are being addressed. A great deal of time can be used ineffectively by speakers bouncing off each other, leading the discussion in a different direction and away from the present needs. The result is that people are not heard, clarity is lost and frustration sets in. If new issues are raised during the course of the meeting, identify them, place them on the agenda, and resume with the current item.
Ask for Something
End on a clear request. If you want to make sure that you have been heard as you would like, then it is useful to make a request to that effect. “I’d like to be sure I’ve communicated clearly. Can someone help me out by letting me know what you’ve heard?”
You might also be interested in knowing what others are experiencing having heard you speak. If so ask, “Can others tell me what goes on for you hearing this?” If you have a solution to offer, again make a request for what you would like. “Karen, would you be willing to assume this task for the next 2 weeks?”
Get Team Commitment
Don’t assume people are genuinely willing to commit just because they don’t object after you say what you’d like or because a motion has been passed.
Unexpressed objections will show up later as half-hearted efforts that produce less than desired results. Ask people if they object and let them know you want to hear objections. “Is there anyone present who is not agreement with proceeding as suggested?”
Depending on how input has been received in the past, people may need to learn to trust that their objections are truly welcome and will be given consideration. If someone objects, explore what’s behind the objection. There’s more ground to cover if there are needs that would not be met by their agreement. It’s more effective to deal with the needs now as a preventative measure than later as a clean up.
Incorporate time to celebrate accomplishments and express gratitude. People give of their time and energy and have a need to receive regular and genuine feedback that their contributions matter and make a difference. Knowing that what we do matters provides us with the necessary fuel to continue giving and minimizes the occurrence of apathy and burnout.
Rachelle Lamb is president of Mindful Communication, author of Nonviolent Communication Basics, and a certified trainer of Nonviolent Communication She has been offering NVC trainings in organizational settings for over six years. Her stimulating and dynamic presentations are designed to challenge and inspire groups and organizations to examine attitudes and structures within a relational context that interfere with the realization of organizational goals and objectives and to collectively explore ways to break through limiting patterns and optimize human resources. For more information, visit her website at www.RachelleLamb.com or call 250-480-7122.