FSAP - Effective Communication

Why Is It So Hard To Listen?

Most of us can make our point without too much difficulty. Any time FSAP counselors work with two or more people, both are usually expert at describing everything that is wrong with the other person. But it is rare to find someone who truly knows how to listen. Why is this so difficult? Most of us don't listen, especially when we are involved in an argument, because we are forming our response, waiting to pounce on the speaker the minute they take a breath. We may be waiting to display our brilliance and make our point by taking things out of context. We may also be listening for cues so that we can direct the conversation in our direction. None of these actions communicates to the listener that we are truly interested in hearing them, thereby communicating respect. People often seem shocked when the conversation ends after utilizing these "half-listening" techniques.

Another "conversation ender" is our desire to jump right in and fix the problem. This difference in communication style has been spelled out very clearly in Debra Tannen's "You Just Don't Understand" where gender differences in communication styles are described. As she points out, sometimes people want to talk just to talk. Talking is therapeutic, even when an "answer" is not forthcoming.

Listening is not easy and requires a certain set of skills. An active listener:

  • concentrates on what is being said (doesn't read, shuffle papers or otherwise non-verbally communicate a lack of interest)
  • listens to all facts and tries not to interrupt until the speaker has concluded his/her statements. When someone is talking for a long period of time, it is sometimes helpful to either take notes or ask them to stop so that you can feed back to them what you have heard.
  • listens for key words of interest on which to comment and ask questions (communicating that I am really interested and want to hear more or better understand what you are saying.)
  • is objective; hears people as they are, not the way you'd like them to be.
  • holds back personal judgments until the speaker has presented his/her ideas.

Listening requires courage because we may hear things that we'd rather not (especially about ourselves). Active listening means staying in the "here and now", focusing on the current issues and not getting sidetracked on what happened previously or the way we'd like things to be.

Where the magic starts to occur in a conversation is when you are able to let the speaker know that you are really paying attention to them. How does one do this? By acknowledging what you heard the other person say. This can be accomplished in different ways:

"It sounds like you are saying..."
"Do I understand you to mean...?"
"Let me make sure that I understand your point. Do you mean...?"

Acknowledging what you heard is in no way agreeing with what you heard. The reason that many of us skip this step is because we believe that if we state what we heard the person say, then we have agreed with them. Providing feedback simply communicates that I respect you and am showing that respect by trying hard to understand your point, even if I do disagree with it.

There is nothing as powerful as being understood by another person, especially when it involves something important and entails an emotional content. The above statements are ways to make that happen.

How Can I Make My Point in a More Effective Manner?

Learning how to communicate assertively allows you the freedom to know that you have a right to speak and be heard in most situations and the confidence to know that you can present yourself in such a fashion that people will want to hear you.

Assertive communication is difficult to teach in a short paragraph. There are excellent books and articles listed at the end of this section, but here are some of the main principles:

  • First and foremost, assertive speakers demonstrate attentive listening behavior. What you communicate is "I am showing you the respect by listening to you, and assume that you will show me the same courtesy."
  • Demonstrate an assuring manner, communicating caring and strength
  • To the extent possible, remain as relaxed as you can. It is physiologically impossible to be both relaxed and anxious at the same time, so focus on being relaxed and develop skills that will help in these situations
  • State clearly what it is that you want
  • State honestly how you feel about the topic

Both of the above recommendations are more effective whenever you use "I" statements, e.g. "I would like to speak with you about the fight we had last night in the restaurant. I feel very angry about the scene we made and I would like very much for us to work things out." Using "I" statement allows you to take responsibility for your behavior and your feelings. It also gets you out of the habit of blaming others, a sure recipe for defensiveness from the listener.

  • An assertive speaker also recognizes that there is someone else with whom you are having the conversation. Recognizing their side and their concerns shows respect and usually results in reciprocal behavior.
  • An assertive speaker always communicates a desire for a "win-win" outcome, again recognizing the needs of the other person
  • Your eyes should be making good contact, but not staring. Your posture should be well balanced, straight, erect and relaxed. Your voice should be firm, warm, well modulated and relaxed.

Putting all of these tips together takes practice but is worth the time and effort to improve your ability to get your point across. When employees ask us for help in addressing a colleague, we usually ask them to do two things: 1. imagine the worst thing that can happen when you speak to this person and be confident that you can handle it; and 2. practice the conversation with the FSAP counselor or some trusted individual so that you will be prepared for most contingencies.

Negotiating Conflict in a Principled Fashion

When dealing with conflicts with two or more employees or between family members, FSAP counselors attempt to teach the model demonstrated in the book "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In" by Roger Fisher and William Ury. This is an excellent guide to learning how to negotiate successfully in any area of your life based on the following four principles:

  1. Always separate the people from the problem. A good negotiation should involve a desire for maintaining the relationship. This is especially true for co-workers. But the relationship should not influence the substance of the conflict. If it is strictly a relationship problem, deal with it as such.
  2. Focus on the interests, not positions. Do not get caught up in the position the person has taken. What is behind their position? Why are they offering what they are? Are there other ways to get their needs met (and yours)? Acknowledge their interests and keep up a discussion about both parties interests - this is the way to generate alternative solutions.
  3. Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do. Realize that solving their problem is also a way of solving yours. Look for ways that you will both benefit (win-win). Don't assume that there is only one single answer (theirs, or yours!)
  4. Insist that results be based on some objective standard. Ideally, to assure a wise agreement, objective criteria should be not only independent of will, but also legitimate and practical. There are many objective standards that can be applied when trying to negotiate fairly. The following are only a few:
    Market ValueWhat a court would decide
    PrecedentMoral Standards
    Scientific JudgmentEqual Treatment
    Professional StandardsTradition
    EfficiencyReciprocity

There are three basic points to remember:

  1. Frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria.
  2. Reason and be open to reason as to which standards are most appropriate and how they should be applied.
  3. Never yield to pressure, only to principle.

Negotiating Conflict at Work

When attempting to address workplace conflicts, it is helpful to be aware that there are a variety of resources on campus to address problems in an attempt to settle differences and prevent grievances. In addition to the FSAP, there are also the following offices:

Ombuds Office: Can act as a mediator prior to and/or in place of the grievance process. There is an Ombuds Officer for Faculty (405-1901) and for Staff (405-5795).

Staff Relations: They can be helpful in spelling out your formal and informal options and can guide you through the grievance process, but be aware that in a formal grievance, they represent the university. Also can provide information on policies and procedures. 405-5651.

Center for Leadership and Organizational Change : Provides training and facilitation services on a larger scale, working with quality teams to address a variety of department wide and campus wide issues. OOE an offer training on group effectiveness, consultation on strategic planning, will facilitate departmental retreats, and provide individual and leadership coaching. 405-0724

Want More Information?

Assertiveness - Analysis and Development
Building Your Assertiveness
Stand Up for Yourself- Be Assertive

Bibliography

Alberti, Robert E. and Michael L. Emmons. Your Perfect Right - A guide to Assertive Living. 1970. Impact Publishers.
Bolton, Robert, Ph.D. People Skills. 1979. Simon and Schuster.
Giblin, Les. How to Have Confidence and Power In Dealing With People. 1986. Reward Books.
Smith, Manuel J. When I Say No I Feel Guilty. 1975. Bantam Books.
Tannen, Deborah, Ph.D. You Just Don't Understand - Women and Men in Conversation. 1990. Ballantine.