We have looked at why speaking up is so crucial to collaboration and yet remains so rare in organizations today (refer to The Courage to Speak Up). We have also explored the reflective skills needed to guide our decisions of what to share and where to share it (refer to The What and Where of Speaking Up).
In this post, the final part in this three part series on speaking up, we explore the language and communication skills needed to speak up about contentious issues and to initiate difficult conversations. After all, it can take great skill to speak up in conflict situations without damaging our relationships or jeopardizing the ethics of contribution and norms of collaboration that we strive to encourage and support in our organizations.
Do No Harm?
Once we’ve decided to speak up, and we’ve determined the most appropriate audience for our openness, we still need to deliver the message. How often do the right words escape us when the emotional stakes are high? How often do our good intentions of disclosure in a difficult situation result in awkward admissions, fumbled feedback, or incoherent instructions? (1)
When we aim to build on and support ethics of contribution and norms of collaboration within our organizations, how we speak up is just as important as the decision to speak up in the first place. We can’t very well build healthy organizational cultures based on contribution and collaboration if our clumsy actions and use of language diminishes others. (2)
Stone, Patton, and Heen eloquently remind us that “Delivering a difficult message is like throwing a hand grenade.” When we face the dilemma of whether to raise a difficult issue and risk damaging a relationship, we wonder if we can do it so politely, and appeal so absolutely to rationality, that we can deliver our message without the anticipated emotional explosion. Unfortunately, we’re kidding ourselves: “Coated with sugar, thrown hard or soft, a hand grenade is still going to do damage.” (3)
The real challenge that we face is not so much How do we manage the damage we cause in speaking up? but How do we build more resilient relationships? When we focus on building healthier and more open and supportive relationships that can endure the inevitable battery that results when we must launch difficult conversations, these relationships can even grow in strength and meaning in the face of such adversity.
While relationship building is the subject of a future post, we’ll concentrate here on three aspects of communication that can strengthen our message and support our larger goals of building ethics of contribution and norms of collaboration:
- Clarity of message
- Descriptive language
- Authentic emotionality
Clarity of Message
LaFasto and Larson report that role clarity is one of the top six issues that team members wish they could discuss openly (4). Clawson suggests that clarity can empower the listener (5). Stone Patton and Heen also tell us that clarity is key (6). From their various perspectives, these researchers are all telling us that clarity has the potential for empowering rather than diminishing our communication partners.
Clarity of individual and team roles, clarity of how roles fit together, clarity of group norms and operating assumptions, clarity about personal beliefs and desires. Clarity is clearly important, but also insufficient. Consider the Drill Sargent barking orders: he is communicating clearly, but the resulting communication can diminish individuals and discourage open collaboration.
We are all subject to cognitive errors, including Naïve Realism, The Fundamental Attribution Error, and Questionable Cause. These errors lead us to believe, for example, that our perception of reality is both accurate and complete, leaving no room for a reasonable person to disagree with us (7). We are not even aware that we are making these errors for much of the time, nevertheless, the effect that they have is real enough – leading us to make assumptions about others that are just plain wrong and putting us at odds with our colleagues, who are also making poor assumptions about our own motives or sanity.
The conflict between dueling perceptions of reality can easily erupt into interpersonal conflict when we don’t question our assumptions and default to judgmental language. (8)
But the amazing thing about language is that while it can constrain our thinking, it can also free us: by forcing a change in our language we can enable ourselves and others to consider new ideas and form alternative perceptions (9). When we make the conscious effort to use descriptive rather than judgmental language, we stop arguing for a position. We open the door for ourselves and for our conversation partners to come in a share a space where we might both be virtuous and sane, even as we disagree with one another. (10)
Emotions are inevitable when the stakes are high, outcomes uncertain, and information about the situation is subjective (11). But many feel that expressing particular emotions (if any) in the work place is inappropriate (12). When these views are reinforced by the behaviors of influential leaders, they reinforce group norms and become cemented as a component of an organization’s culture. (13)
But can you remain authentic if you cut yourself off from your emotional response to a situation? What does anyone gain by denying or invalidating deep-felt emotions? (14)
Apart from the implications for social and psychological health, is it even practical for any of us to pursue the dehumanizing goal of becoming an emotional cypher? (15)
While a cultural norm built around suppressing emotions is arguably self-defeating, it also fails to reap the benefits that come from acknowledging and expressing emotions in the work place: “When we invite, instruct or tell a truth we see with passion, the commitment we feel is communicated to the listener and can ignite in them a similar passion or commitment.” (16)
Stone, Patton and Heen provide us with an outline of how we can skillfully share our emotions. “While the drawbacks of avoiding feelings are inevitable, the drawbacks of sharing feelings are not. If you are able to share feelings with skill, you can avoid many of the potential costs associated with expressing your feelings into your conversations and into your relationships in ways that are healthy, meaningful, and satisfying:
- First, you need to sort out just what your feelings are;
- Second, you need to negotiate with your feelings; and
- Third, you need to share your actual feelings, not attributions or judgments about the other person.” (17)
This outline, while deceptive in its simplicity, is nonetheless a very useful model if we are willing to invest the necessary time and energy in person reflection. For starters, we typically don’t know our own emotions as well as we might think (18). Next, since our emotions are reactions to our perceptions and we can question and influence our perceptions, with focus and effort we can also influence our emotions (19).
Finally, we need to recognize when our emotions disguise themselves as judgments if we wish to engage in productive conversations that seek to collaboratively uncover and deal with underlying problems (20). We’ll explore this aspect of collaborative problem solving in a future series of posts on the Courage to Share.
In these three posts, we have uncovered the crucial part speaking up plays in effective collaboration, and we have explored some of the reflective and interpersonal skills necessary to ensure that our openness translates into consistently virtuous personal contributions to our organizations and communities. Now we need to practice, practice, practice!
We also need to learn how to listen, which is the subject of the next post.
1. “Would-be managers and leaders often, sometimes unwittingly, abuse effective language principles and, in so doing, undermine their ability to manage and lead. They may use phrases that they learned at home, at school, in their neighborhood, or in their work that are counterproductive to their attempts to motivate, explain, describe, or evaluate. When this happens, miscommunication, misunderstanding, and confusion at a minimum, can occur. At worst, misusing language can cause outcomes and effects exactly opposite of those intended.” James Clawson, Empowering Language, University of Virginia, May 1991.
2. “Language plays a tremendous role in the process of empowerment… Empowering language edifies listeners; it leaves them with a larger sense of capacity, a larger view of the possible, a larger desire for achievement and growth, a larger boundary of influence, and a larger sense of self.” James Clawson, Empowering Language, University of Virginia, May 1991.
3. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page xxix.
4. “Problems of openness take thousands of different forms, but responses from team members point to some common themes. Here are the six categories of responses that occurred most frequently when team members were asked to identify one issue that they wished their team could discuss in an open way. 1. The communication climate… 2. Results… 3. Policies and bureaucracy… 4. Planning… 5. Role clarity… 6. Performance Issues…” Frank LaFasto and Carl Larson, When Teams Work Best: 6,000 Team Members and Leaders Tell What It Takes to Succeed pages 10-12.
5. “Empowering communicators speak clearly and clarify what they mean. Of course, this kind of communication requires that you be clear about what you believe and what you want. Without your beliefs and desires clearly in mind, you cannot be clear about what you want others to do. Gaining this kind of clarity may require long hours of self-analysis, thinking, meditation, and visioning. Some leaders are too ‘busy’ to do this kind of work, and as a result, their communications are weaker.” James Clawson, Empowering Language, University of Virginia, May 1991.
6. “How you say what you want to say will determine, in part, how others respond to you, and how the conversation will go. So when you choose to share something important, you’ll want to do so in a way that will maximize the chance that the other person will understand and respond productively. Clarity is key.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 195.
7. “We are all prone to naive realism, a term coined by psychologist Lee Ross, which is a person’s ‘unshakable conviction that he or she is somehow privy to an invariant, knowable, objective reality – a reality that others will also perceive faithfully, provided that they are reasonable and rational.’ So, when others misperceive our ‘reality,’ we conclude that it must be because they are unreasonable or irrational and ‘view the world through a prism of self-interest, ideological bias, or personal perversity.’” Amy Edmondson, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy page 64.
8. “Sometimes we jump to conclusions. We quickly reach an assessment of ‘okay’ or ‘not okay’ based primarily on our assumptions and a brief observation. These conclusions tend to be judgmental in nature. If these hasty conclusions motivate our behavior, our speech, our body language, or our facial expressions, we usually communicate an evaluation or a judgment.” James Clawson, Empowering Language, University of Virginia, May 1991.
9. “It constrains our thinking, reflects our basic values, and is the most common medium for the exchange of our thoughts and beliefs. The language we speak allows us to convey certain thoughts and causes us to be confused about how to convey other thoughts. Indeed, language can prohibit us from grasping and understanding certain concepts and can make other concepts available to us. With its power as the central vehicle for communicating goals, thoughts, plans, instructions, requests, and so on, in business settings, language is perhaps the most important management tool we have.” James Clawson, Empowering Language, University of Virginia, May 1991.
“It’s not enough, then, simply to imagine a different way of seeing. People must try through their actions – to create experiences that make a new way of seeing come true.” Diana McLain Smith, The Elephant in the Room: How Relationships Make or Break the Success of Leaders and Organizations page 174.
10. “When conclusions are based on descriptive data rather than judgments, they can empower and elicit changes in others’ behavior. Being able to distinguish between evaluative and descriptive statements is an important step to learning how to use empowering language.” James Clawson, Empowering Language, University of Virginia, May 1991.
“Reframing people’s differences in… descriptive, less toxic ways makes it much more likely that people can discuss their difficulties and give each other the benefit of the doubt…” Diana McLain Smith, The Elephant in the Room: How Relationships Make or Break the Success of Leaders and Organizations page 87.
11. “…conflicts typically heat up when three conditions are present: controversial or limited data that are subject to differing interpretations, high uncertainty, and high stakes. conversations can get especially heated when people hold different values or belief systems, or have different interests and incentives. This can make aspects of the conflict hard to discuss productively, because people often hesitate to mention the personal gain they anticipate from one of the potential decision outcomes.” Amy Edmondson, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy page 68.
12. “In the presence of strong feelings, many of us work hard to stay rational. Getting too deep into feelings is messy, clouds good judgment, and in some contexts – for example, at work – can seem just plain inappropriate… Better to stick to ‘Business.’ Or is it? The problem with this reasoning is that it fails to take account of one simple fact: difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 13.
13. “Cultures basically spring from three sources: (1) the beliefs, values, and assumptions of founders of organizations; (2) the learning experiences of group members as their organization evolves; and (3) new beliefs, values, and assumptions brought in by new members and new leaders. Though each of these mechanisms plays a crucial role, by far the most important for cultural beginnings is the impact of founders. Founders not only choose the basic mission and the environmental context in which the new group will operate, but they choose the group members and thereby shape the kinds of responses that the group will make in its efforts to succeed in its environment and to integrate itself.” Edgar schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, page 219.
14. “In the short term, engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings may save you time and reduce your anxiety. It may also seem like a way to avoid serious risks – to you, to others, and to the relationship. But the question remains: if feelings are the issue, what have you accomplished if you don’t address them?” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 14.
15. “Unspoken feelings can color the conversation in a number of ways. They alter your affect and tone of voice. They express themselves through your body language or facial expression. They may take the form of long pauses or an odd and unexplained detachment. You may become sarcastic, aggressive, impatient, unpredictable, or defensive. Studies show that while few people are good at detecting factual lies, most of us can determine when someone is distorting, manufacturing, or withholding an emotion. That’s because, if clogged, your emotional pipes leak.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 88.
16. EMPOWERING LANGUAGE Professor James G. Clawson
17. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 90-91
18. “Most of us assume that knowing how we feel is no more complicated than knowing whether we are hot or cold. We just know. But, in fact, we often don’t know how we feel… Feelings are more complex and nuanced than we usually imagine. What’s more, feelings are very good at disguising themselves. Feelings we are uncomfortable with disguise themselves as emotions we are better able to handle; bundles of contradictory feelings masquerade as a single emotion; and most important, feelings transform themselves into judgments, accusations, and attributions.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 91
19. “…our feelings are based on our perceptions, and our perceptions…are negotiable. As we see the world in new ways, our feelings shift accordingly. Before sharing feelings, then, it is crucial to negotiate – with ourselves…What is the story we are telling ourselves that is giving rise to how we feel? What is our story missing? What might the other person’s story be?… Are we able to see our own contribution to the problem? Are we able to describe the other person’s contribution without blaming? Are we aware of the ways that each of our contributions forms a reinforcing pattern that magnifies the problem?…” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 100-101
20. “The difference between judgments about others and statements of our own feelings is sometimes difficult to see… They are motivated by anger or frustration or hurt, and the person on the receiving end understands very clearly that we are feeling something. Unfortunately, that person probably isn’t sure what we are feeling, and more important, is focused on the fact that we are judging, attributing, and blaming.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations page 98-99