Without talking with you first, a supervisor unleashes his fury on an employee. He wanted those reports on his desk by noon. It’s 4:30 PM and he still doesn’t have them. In these situations, the employee will typically cower, suck it in, and build his own rage, till the pressure cooker explodes, perhaps at a co-worker. Or maybe the employee is the type to yell back or argue, or perhaps to desperately try to explain what actually happened, as the torrents of his supervisor’s hostility rain down on his head.
Statistics confirm my experience as a coach for individuals and businesses— hostilities and resentments in the workplace are on the rise. Close to 50% of workers in the United States report yelling and verbal abuse on the job. About one-tenth report physical violence and worry that their place of employment may not be safe. Economic pressures leading to more work to do, with less resources, time, and finances, contribute to increased frustrations, tensions, and even violence at all levels of organizations.
As an HR professional, your best way to effectively handle stressors is to focus on effective communication strategies. When we bring to mind “communication,” it’s natural to first think about how we express ourselves–our ability to communicate our experience and ideas in a way that impacts people. Still, in my coaching and seminars I usually begin with another element of communication—listening.
Learning to Listen
A relevant saying for the workplace is that people don’t care what you know till they know that you care. A great way to demonstrate that we care is to show we understand. For an angry person, or anyone in an emotionally charged situation, understanding can be like life air. If we get the wind knocked out of us, all we want is air. At that time, a pile of money, or our favorite meal, or a good joke doesn’t mean a thing. Similarly, sometimes what we most want is to be understood, and at such times good advice, an astute analysis, or even praise or reassurance won’t satisfy. If you notice that someone in the office, including yourself, is feeling misunderstood, consider that this could be the seed of growing tensions, hostilities, and resentment.
A technique to show that you have listened and understood is to mirror back in your own words what the person said and the feeling behind it. This is an invaluable skill to master—and to teach your employees. With reference to the scene at the start of this article, the employee might reflect, “I see that you’re angry with me because you wanted those reports by noon and you still don’t have them.” Empathic responses can go a long way toward diffusing hostility and creating a culture of genuine dialogue, as distinct from an atmosphere of simultaneous monologues. A dialogue is founded on commitment to understanding, as opposed to a pseudo conversation, which might be described as a vocal competition in which the one catching his breath is called the listener.
Several years ago I worked as a children and family counselor. On one occasion an enraged father stormed into my office. “How could you tell the judge to keep my kid in foster care?” I could have yelled back, perhaps referring to his continued substance abuse or his irresponsibility in fulfilling his performance agreement. This would have likely escalated his fury. Or I could have calmly explained to him what he could do to get his child returned, which was the outcome that both of us desired. I began with empathy, matching his intensity. “I know you are furious with me. You’re upset that I recommended to the judge to keep your child in foster care for another three months.” He continued his tirade, and I continued my attempts at showing understanding of what he expressed. After a few minutes, he did sense that I was not his enemy and that I cared about him and his son. His anger diffused through empathic listening and we were able to have a civilized and productive dialogue, during which I shared with him information about what he could do to accelerate the process of his child’s return. Once he knew that I cared, he began to care what I knew.
It’s important to distinguish between understanding and agreement. To empathically demonstrate understanding does not mean that you agree. Perhaps sometimes you consider the perspective and reaction of the other person justified, and sometimes not. Especially in those instances when we don’t agree, it’s especially helpful, albeit challenging, to suspend the expression of this disagreement and show that we understand what the person is saying and the emotion behind it. This entails really listening to what the other person is actually saying, rather than being preoccupied with what we are saying, inside ourselves, about what the person is communicating.
Research in labor-management negotiations indicates that when one party reflects back what the other party expresses, before saying what they want to express, problems are resolved twice as quickly. This may seem counterintuitive, because it would seem to take much longer to follow this process. When asked about this in company coaching or workshops that I conduct, I acknowledge that using the strategies of transformative communication does take longer—up front. In the mid- and long-term, though, it is quite efficient, because we circumvent difficulties that arise from lower-level communication.
Research has shown that in a multitude of professions, including police work, factory operations, business management, financial consulting, and sales, higher empathy correlates positively with better performance, results, and satisfaction. A study at a large polyester fiber plant demonstrated that empathy was the quality that most differentiated the most productive teams of workers from others. In the field of medicine, greater empathy correlates positively with more accurate diagnoses, higher patient satisfaction, and other desirable outcomes.
Courageous and Considerate Expression
Through high-level listening, we naturally create an environment where what we express is also respected, heard, and carefully considered. The ability to assertively express ourselves is essential for creating healthy boundaries in the workplace. Lack of such boundaries is a source of misunderstandings and anxiety.
To teach employees an effective strategy for assertive expression, remember the acronym WIN.
W What happened
I Inside feelings and thoughts
N Needs and wants
What happened. When we express, especially in interpersonally delicate situations, it is important to differentiate between what happened and my reaction to or interpretation of what happened. For example, suppose your assistant agreed that he would deliver phone messages to you within two hours after he receives them, and at the end of the week you discover that there are half a dozen messages you still didn’t receive. We might think an expression of what happened is, “You are so irresponsible, unreliable, and inconsiderate.” Actually, though, that’s not what happened. What happened is, “You agreed to get me phone messages within two hours, and this week there are at least half a dozen messages I haven’t received after several days.”
Inside feelings and thoughts. After stating what happened, an effective strategy for expressing ourselves is to use “I” statements to let the other person know how we feel. For example: “I am angry with you…I’m disappointed…I’m upset…,” rather than “you” statements, such as, “You are so undependable…If you do that once more…”
Needs and wants. Finally, we can state our needs and wants using “I” statements. For instance, “I’d like us to work cooperatively in a pleasant and trusting atmosphere. For this to happen, I need for you to honor your agreements to punctually get messages to me.”
Applying communication techniques such as mirroring and WIN sets the foundation for win-win outcomes. A win-win paradigm involves commitment to everyone being satisfied. This means that we invest the time to understand what constitutes a winning result for others, and that we know how to assertively express our vision, limits, and concerns.
The Influence of Environment
Mastery of communication contributes greatly to a supportive and nurturing office culture. Consideration of several other factors will also reduce unnecessary anxiety and workplace pressures. Esther Sternberg refers to “hierarchy stress,” and describes common scenarios related to systemic hierarchical dynamics in organizations that generate high stress levels for persons at all levels of a company. She describes contributing stressors, such as cramped, noisy surroundings, an interpersonal atmosphere that relies on fear and disparagement to motivate, uncertainty of steady employment, inflexibility in scheduling, underlying assumptions of mistrust amongst and between employees, management and ownership, and lack of psychological or financial reward for good performance.
Of course, a certain level of stress is desirable, as it inspires us to perform in excellence. Just as some physical stress strengthens muscles, a degree of work-related stress moves us to increase our capacity for production. When a muscle has no chance for relaxation between periods of stress, however, it gets damaged. Thus, creating a work environment that addresses stressors in a balanced way facilitates everyone in the company to optimize productivity and experience satisfaction in doing so.
Management at the Volvo factory in Sweden found a high rate of heart disease, stroke, and dissatisfaction amongst assembly line workers. They introduced environmental modifications to reduce stress. This included physical adjustments as well as a structure that was much more empowering, and less repetitively mechanized, for the workers. Workers felt valued and respected, maladies decreased, and job satisfaction increased. Simultaneously, product quality increased. Win-win for everyone.
Another important factor in lessening workplace pressures is to like what we do. If our job is aligned with our integrity, a source of meaningful purpose, then we will be more capable to handle challenging situations in a life-enhancing manner.
In this regard, much of the coaching I do in companies is internally focused, centered on development of intrinsic qualities that are conducive to career and life satisfaction. Often these efforts are geared toward shifting from a have-do-be to a be-do-have approach.
Have-do-be might sound something like, “If I have a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank, and a house of a certain size, and a particular position in the company, then I’ll be secure, satisfied, and powerful.” Actually, this is a weak stance, because it assumes that I am intrinsically not secure, satisfied, and powerful. If you shift to the paradigm of be-do-have, you know that to experience security, satisfaction, and power is not dependent on having anything external, because you inherently are secure, satisfied, powerful, balanced, vibrant, and confident. From that foundation you may choose to focus your energies toward obtaining a position or acquiring assets. In be-do-have, you choose happiness and security, rather than chase happiness and security. It might sound like this: Because I am happy and have a positive outlook, I do better work and pursue meaning in my work, and this leads to increasing financial rewards.
One of my coaching clients and I once focused specifically on him being patient and peaceful—qualities that were missing in his life, and which he wanted to cultivate. With earnest effort he connected with the patience and calm inherent to his being. During our following coaching session, he described with surprise that his supervisor had asked him to accept a position with increased responsibility, involving training others. The supervisor particularly mentioned that she offered the promotion because of his patience, and his ability to remain calm in stressful situations. Being patient and peaceful naturally resulted in acting in ways that patient and peaceful act (in this instance a more rewarding career activity), and having things that patient and peaceful people have (in this example an increased income). That’s be-do-have.
When employees are using the tools and techniques of transformative communication, it creates a workplace conducive to handling potentially volatile work situations with composure and poise. Commitment to the interpersonal and self-development techniques of transformative communication converts conflict into cooperation in the company culture, and helps make “work” an enriching and inspiring place to be.
There is a proverb: If you love what you do, you’ll never have to work. My aim in teaching transformative communication through experiential seminars and personal and corporate coaching is to facilitate “work” environments where increasing numbers of people never have to work.