How A Few Offhand Remarks Can Cause Your Biggest Problems At Work

Communication at work

"As usual, you didn't turn off the light when you left the conference room."

This seemingly simple sentence is actually a ticking team bomb set to wreak havoc on your relationships with your coworkers. Even if you formulated it with the best intentions, this sentence is made up of judgments, evaluations, strategies, and demands.

Indeed, just a few offhand remarks like these might be causing some of your biggest problems at work.

The fact is, in order to be productive and achieve your goals, you need to communicate well with others. It’s important to be aware of how you talk to the people around you: You’ll have better working relationships, and thus be more successful.

There is a framework you can use to communicate more clearly with better results, even if it’s a message as seemingly “naggy” as reminding someone to clean up after a meeting. Taking a few cues from nonviolent communication can vastly improve many aspects of your day-to-day experiences with colleagues, and even spread out into other areas of your life.

The Circles Of Life (And Communication)

The daily interactions you have with others typically break down into three different cycles:

  • The Innermost Circle: Intimate relationships with frequent communication. These are mostly family and friends, but may include co-workers, depending on the level of intimacy you have with them.

  • The Outermost Circle: People who don't know you and with whom you’ve had one-time interactions, like cashiers at a shop, bus drivers, strangers on the street, etc.

  • The Middle Circle: Anybody in between, which can include work colleagues, students, parents of your children's friends, etc.

You are constantly interacting with these three circles in fluid ways. Sometimes you’re in two at once. Sometimes the lines between “middle” and “innermost” get blurry. Therefore, any attitude you develop with one will have an indirect impact on how you interact with the others.

Recently, I went through a stressful situation at home where my communication with my innermost cycle contained a lot of conflict. I then realized these conflicts were having an impact on my interactions with coworkers: I started having less empathy and became more tense and demanding in my interactions in meetings and during problem-solving conversations.

Like a loop, these ineffective interactions immediately stressed me out, and therefore I became more violent in my communication at home, and thus had begun a vicious cycle of toxic communication. As I didn't want the situation to get worse, I started looking for practices that could help me bring peace in my relationships.

This is when I was recommended a book by Marshall Rosenberg, titled Nonviolent Communication : A Language of Life. Nonviolent communication (abbreviated as NVC), is a communication technique developed by Rosenberg that can help anyone, even in tough conflict-ridden situations like war, to communicate in a more effective way.

How To Communicate In A Nonviolent Manner

Not surprisingly, communicating better with others starts by being more empathetic with yourself. Changing habits isn’t easy, especially when they are linked to your deepest feelings. It's crucial to not to blame yourself when you start practicing NVC, as it's extremely normal not to succeed at first.

To help people improve the quality of their relationships, Marshall built a framework based on four pillars:

  1. Observation (over Judgment)
  2. Feelings (over Evaluations)
  3. Needs (over Strategies)
  4. Requests (over Demand)

This framework is used to both express yourself and to listen to others. By learning to (1) observe without judgment, (2) identify and express your feelings, (3) assume the responsibility of your feelings, and (4) request what will enrich your life, you'll be more likely to receive others with empathy and communicate more effectively.

Based on his framework, Rosenberg encourages you to explicitly communicate with others by making sure that you are using the four elements mentioned above. Here is an example of violent communication:

"You arrived late, that’s so disrespectful."

By saying it this way, you are judging that a person is late, and not explaining more factually that the person may have arrived later than you expected to a specific appointment. Instead of expressing your own feelings, you are blaming the other person—in addition to not expressing your needs or a specific request.

One way to reformulate this sentence in a nonviolent way would be to say:

"When you arrive 10 minutes late to a meeting we scheduled together (factual observation) I feel disrespected (feelings) as being punctual is important to prove to me that you are committed to our meeting (needs). In the future could you make sure to arrive on time? (request) "

This nonviolent sentence may not feel natural (and very long), but with practice it will become shorter and easier, while still expressing the same amount of empathy.  

Tips To Try Out Nonviolent Communication

Here are some tips to improve your NVC while still feeling like yourself: 

Self Nonviolent Communication

The first step to improve your NVC game is to be aware that you are blocking a connection. Check in with yourself before diving in: Are uncomfortable in the situation, angry, impatient, defending a position, blaming, explaining, seeking to punish, moralistically judging, diagnosing others, or "needing" to be right? Any of these answers can be right without being “bad.” This first step towards self awareness will help you to spot your disconnect and help you to shift your attitude. It is crucial to use self-empathy to recognize your triggers.

In a conflict situation, if your conclusion is "The other person made me sad/angry/disrespected/etc." you are letting others around you control your emotions. If you turn the sentence around and frame it as, "When I see them do that, I feel sad/angry/disrespected/etc because I need recognition/respect/etc." then your emotions are a result of an internal process over which you have the control.

Acknowledging which situations are most like to trigger negative emotions, such as quarterly reviews or project retrospectives, will help you work at a system to understand and better control those emotions before they take hold of your words.

Practice Pause

Stop reading and check in with yourself right now. What are you feeling? What needs are behind that feeling? See if you can connect with at least one Need.

— Ike, Lasater, Words That Work in Business

Silent NVC

In his book, Words That Work In Business, Ike Lasater suggests that you should practice nonviolent communication silently with your coworkers as a first step to introduce the concept into your middle cycle.

When you realize you may have been violent when communicating with a coworker, reformulate your sentence internally while following the NVC framework. You can also form an internal inquiry about the other using the framework, which will help you shift your own energy to something more constructive.

Practice Pause

Think back to your most recent interaction with someone, however brief. What need might that person have been trying to meet with their words or actions?

— Ike Lasater, Words That Work In Business

Switching between self and silent NVC is a good way to practice and learn to be more conscious of yourself and others without placing you in a spot that could make you feel uncomfortable. For example, it would probably come off odd if you were speaking out loud in the middle of a meeting with an extremely long and detailed sentence about your feelings.  

The next step for improving your NVC skills is to start celebrating progress and mourning mistakes. For the former you need to recognize that needs were met, for the latter you should acknowledge that needs weren't met and work on understanding why and how you should be able to change it. Practicing silent learning cycles will help you gain confidence and move towards verbalizing NVC.

Practice Pause

1.) Choose one recent situation where you would like to have acted differently. Take a moment to mourn, and consider how you would like to have acted. 

2.) Think of something that happened at work recently, however small, that you liked. How might you be able to celebrate it with your coworkers? 

— Ike Lasater, Words That Work in Business

Practicing Out Loud

Choose your cycles. Ike's advice is to start trying NVC with your outermost cycle. By practicing with strangers you will meet once, you will feel less ashamed of formulating your feelings in a way that feels unnatural, and they will be less likely to notice change or discomfort since they don't know you. This practice will give you confidence to use this new communication tool with people you know. 

Get agreement. Ike recommends then to shift to the innermost cycle as those people are more likely to be empathetic towards you. Nonetheless, he recommends to first get their agreement to make sure that you have a space to explain to them what you are planning on doing, and that they will let you know if they get uncomfortable with the practice.

Practice Pause

Whom in your inner circle might you make a practice agreement with? Practice how you might phrase your request.

— Ike Lasater, Words That Work In Business

To move to the middle cycle, especially with coworkers, it is important to get a clear agreement from them before practicing. Agree together on the distinction between a request and a demand. If any of you are agreeing to a request in order to avoid punishment or criticism, then it's a demand.

I have been practicing nonviolent communication with my outermost and innermost cycles for a couple months. I am certain that it has helped me bring more peace in my relationships. I am calmer and more conscious of my own feelings, and I understand my own triggers better.

I recently started to practice silent NVC at work and was able to spot several situations in which I could have used a different language or approach to my communication with teammates. I haven't dared yet to put it in practice nor to make a formal agreement with any of my coworkers, but I have set it as an objective for next month.

To help me improve my NVC skills, I have also joined a local reading group organized through Facebook. I regularly meet with other people that are going through the same challenges, and it has been very helpful to gain confidence and learn these skills faster.

Tell Your Own Success Story

Consider Aesop’s fable of the North Wind and the Sun:  

One day, the Wind and the Sun were arguing over who was stronger. As a traveller came down the road, they decided to settle the matter by seeing who could be the first to remove the man’s jacket.

The Wind blew as hard as it could, using powerful gusts of air to lift the coat off his back. Alas, the man simply hunched over and tightened the coat up with both hands.

The Sun then took its turn. Slowly, it began to shine ray after ray of gentle sunlight. The traveller, getting warm on his journey, removed his coat with a smile, admiring the beautiful weather.

Even in the mid-6th century BCE, humans had learned that approaching a request with kindness and warmth yields better results than force. However, life’s stresses and the need to get things done quickly often get in the way of this approach. The next time you find yourself gearing up for an uncomfortable chat with your coworker, take a breath, be kind to yourself, and try a nonviolent approach to the conversation.

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