How to communicate compassionately

Why do some teams succeed and ‘flow’ while for others, every day seems like a struggle?

Ann Mehl and Jerry Colonna are executive coaches who’ve worked with senior leaders in Silicon Valley startups like Etsy, Kickstarter and SoundCloud.

They say that just about all of the success or failure of teams comes down to communication. Not just good communication, but great communication.

“Good interpersonal skills are correlated with higher degrees of resiliency, satisfaction and higher productivity,” says Mehl.

When communication is great, “suddenly team members start getting each other, and the work they share between them becomes less of an effort . . .That can mean a big step up in productivity,” says Colonna.

Mehl & Colonna have adapted a technique called ‘non-violent communication’ for use in workplaces and, in an interview with First Round Review, they break down the basics of how leaders and managers can use this tool to express themselves and hear others clearly, and with empathy.

What is ‘compassionate communication’?

Compassionate or ‘non-violent’ communication aims to make people aware of how the particular words they use effect others.

It “proposes that if people can identify their needs, the needs of others, and the feelings that surround these needs, harmony can be achieved.”

As such, it’s designed to eliminate the mental narrative people devise in response to conflict, making them more self-aware and less likely to respond to situations by placing blame.

And like any other skill, communicating compassionately can be built and strengthened by practice.

There are four main ingredients to non-violent communication:

1. Observation

Start off by making a conscious effort to observe what is actually happening in the moment of disagreement or conflict. What is being said? What are others doing?

Then, repeat your observations – but not your thoughts or judgments on them. For instance, “What I’m hearing you say is…” or “I’m noticing that you’ve been late to . . . ”

The most critical part of this step is to make sure that judgements aren’t mixed in with observations at this point. This can be really difficult to do, since “the jump from observation to judgment happens almost immediately”, according to Colonna.

“We might observe, ‘Jane is late to this meeting. Jane is late to a lot of meetings.’ That’s fine. We get into trouble when we tack on, ‘Jane has no respect for her colleagues.’ That’s not an observation. That’s a judgment.”

2. Feelings

Consider how your body feels in the situation and assign adjectives to what you’re experiencing. Are you pleased? Annoyed? Afraid? Worried?

The key here is to choose words that describe your own state, not ones that shift your experience to others’ treatment of you, like ‘unheard’ or ‘pressured’ or ‘judged’.

For example, you might say something like: “I feel irritated when you’re late to meetings.”

(You can find a list of common ‘feelings’ to help you with this step here.)

3. Needs

Now, consider what your needs are, born of the feelings identified above. What’s missing that would make you feel better?

Whether it’s space, appreciation, support, acceptance, security, belonging or something else, articulate what you need to move forward. For instance: “I feel resentful when you say that, because I need support right now.”

(You can find a list of common ‘needs’ to help you with this step here.)

4. Requests

Once you’ve identified your needs, the final part is to come up with a request – that is, the things you’d like someone to do to fulfil your needs.

And since requests are often achieved through other people changing their behaviour, be sure to consider their feelings by building flexibility into your ask.

For instance, you could say something like, “I’m wondering if…?” or, “Would you be willing to…?”

It’s important to keep in mind that the answer to your request might be “no”. In which case, you need to come up with some alternatives that could still meet you needs. That might mean compromise on one or both sides.

Putting compassionate communication into practice

Like any skill, you’ll need to practice this process before you become good at it. Is there a colleague you can practice this with before you go straight into using it in a “real” disagreement?

Once you’ve had some practice, Mehl and Colonna suggest introducing it into your own behaviour, rather than trying suggest it to others as “a new system for communication”, since those who find communicating their needs difficult are most likely to resist new ideas.

And start with the most heated or most difficult situations. “I have seen clients introduce tenets of nonviolent communication when emotions are running high, or when they know they have to say something that will be hard for another person to hear,” Mehl says.

And if you become a living example of better behaviour, say Mehl and Colonna – others will begin to follow your lead faster than you expect.

The success of your team may well depend on learning to communicate compassionately. These techniques have helped millions of people to do just that – including in conflict zones including Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Serbia, Croatia, Ireland, and the Middle East including the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Why not give them a go with your team?

If you’ve tried ‘compassionate communication’ at work, please let us know how it works in the comments below!

Image: flickr/gsj11berlin

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