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Non-violent communication in projects

“I expected more from you Mr Schneider! Do better next time, otherwise I will be forced to look for someone more competent to finish the job.”

“What the heck do you want from me? Do you remember everything that went wrong last week because of you?”
“Don’t talk to me like that!”

Sound familiar? We go through it every day. Some days are worse than others. Communication issues. Unfortunately there are often different kinds of disruptions in our communication. Non-violent communication can help to sooth tensions. But why do problems arise in the first place?

Causes of communication disruptions: the different levels

Disruptions come about because our communication takes place on multiple levels. There is a relational and a rational one, which relates to numbers, data and facts. According to the iceberg model developed by Freud, this makes up about one fifth of our conscious communication.

That means that 80 percent of our communication is influenced by an unconscious part – by the relational level. This is the realm of emotions, expectations and experiences that have shaped us. 80 percent of our communication, as with an iceberg¹, is submerged “under water”. Most of it. We should be aware of that when working in projects – especially since project teams are comprised of very different people, creating great conflict potential.

For example problems could arise because someone has already had be experiences with their colleagues and they cannot manage to pull off constructive communication. Even if one party remains rational we are closed off to them because we believe they want to cause us harm. If the projects are short-term then conflicts can often go unaddressed.

Causes for communication disruptions: our reptilian brain – our “fight or flight” instinct

Disruptions come about because our communication takes place on multiple levels. There is a relational and a rational one, which relates to numbers, data and facts. According to the iceberg model developed by Freud, this makes up about one fifth of our conscious communication.

That means that 80 percent of our communication is influenced by an unconscious part – by the relational level. This is the realm of emotions, expectations and experiences that have shaped us. 80 percent of our communication, as with an iceberg, is submerged “under water”. Most of it. We should be aware of that when working in projects – especially since project teams are comprised of very different people, creating great conflict potential.

For example problems could arise because someone has already had bad experiences with their colleagues and they cannot manage to pull off constructive communication. Even if one party remains rational we are closed off to them because we believe they want to cause us harm. If the projects are short-term then conflicts can often go unaddressed.

Causes for communication disruptions: our reptilian brain – our “fight or flight” instinct
What is more, we generally are not able to think clearly and remain rational when we are stressed. Biological processes, along with Freud’s theory, help to explain why we react to certain situations the way we do and they tell us why we should avoid making accusations.
When someone says something that we perceive to be negative we feel cornered and tend to go into offensive mode – i.e. we want to fight or flee. That is because of our reptilian brain, which is 450 million years old and still exerts great influence over our behavior. It is responsible for our tendency to avoid pain and seek pleasure. It becomes activated when certain needs are not met, in which case it sounds the alarm to either make us ready for battle or to zip out the door.

When these needs (security, safety, recognition, community etc.) are endangered we become very aggravated. The stronger these feelings are the louder the alarm will sound in the reptilian brain. That in turn begins to influence the strength of the fight impulse. In other words, the more we perceive our security to be under threat, for example, the stronger our reaction is.

Our cognitive faculties are not really active in those kinds of situations. The reptilian brain’s goal (avoiding pain and seeking pleasure) trumps everything else. All the hormones in our blood block our cognition. We can’t think clearly anymore, our reptilian brain has the upper hand. We react instinctively and shut the thinking parts of our brains off. Our reptilian brain is primarily concerned with survival, health and our personal welfare. These can also be dependent on other things that have nothing to do with survival.

Its responsibilities can spill out over into our communication. With negative “you messages” or insults we can become frustrated as our security becomes threatened. The reptilian brain takes over to change this – to flee or fight.

As milestones draw closer and the pressure mounts, project teams begin to experience more and more disruptions. Luckily we can all do something about it.

non-violent project communication

Non-violent communication in projects

Dealing with disruptions: non-violent communication in projects

What can we do so that the person we are speaking to is not driven into a “fight or flight” state?
Use non-violent communication. This model is encouraging and empathetic.

  1. It begins with a rational observation of the event that led to our annoyance.
  2. Then comes our strong feelings that we experience in the moment
  3. Afterwards we name our need that is currently not being fulfilled – the cause of our annoyance.
  4. Finally we voice a request to get the need fulfilled.

Observation

It is better if we start out rationally, instead of attacking immediately. Mention things that your colleague would not readily read as an accusation. The observation is a good way to start out, initially it’s just about numbers, data and facts. Generally the other party should not feel cornered at this point if you can soberly recount what you have seen or heard.

Remain firm in your opinion. At this point you are trying to separate what you heard from interpretations in your head. Tell the other party in clear terms what the issue is. How exactly did she fall short of expectations? Even if we don’t say so to the other party, this first step can help to create clarity in your own head. It sensitizes us to the fact that our perceptions do not always align with our interpretations.

To refer back to the example in the beginning we could say something like: “Mr Schneider, yesterday I read your quarterly report. The last few pages are missing and you only wrote two sentences on point x.”

Feelings

Next you can say something about how you feel. What did the observation draw out in you? Are you angry or disappointed with the situation or just confused? Make sure to cite a genuine emotion, not one based on a victim mentality. Not something like “I feel attacked” or “misunderstood” as these feelings can come across as accusations.

That does not have to happen if you just be yourself and explain that you are angry. At least you are taking responsibility for your emotions and are exercising power over your emotional world. When analyzing your emotions the following seven emotions can be helpful, as suggested by Paul Ekman² (an American anthropologist and psychologist): surprise, disgust, joy, frustration, sadness, fear, disapproval.

Talking about surprise or confusion is often easier than admitting to feeling fear or helplessness in the business world. Many people are afraid that their vulnerability will be taken advantage of, making them hesitant on this step. But if you try to use the non-violent communication methods authentically you will see more results than if you threaten your colleagues or make value judgements. It is also a great opportunity for the other party to open up.

In our example from the beginning that might take the following form: “Mr Schneider, yesterday I read your quarterly report. The last few pages are missing and you only wrote two sentences on point x. I am annoyed.”

Needs

As mentioned above, the unfulfilled need is the cause of the feeling. As soon as it is fulfilled everything becomes better. The observation led to the emotions that are currently emerging. Needs guide our behavior and are independent of place, time and person. That has the advantage that we are not dependent on a single person for the fulfillment of them. Looking for one concrete person to fulfil this desire is one of many strategies.

The attitude in non-violent communication is that our needs are equal. No-one is responsible for anyone else’s emotions. In general people are happy to help others as long as they have the impression that they are doing so out of their own free will. Consequently you should pay attention to your own needs, recognizing that you will have more energy when you pay attention to your own needs.

When you are formulating your statement make sure that these needs are communicated positively. That means say things like: “…because quality is important to me” and avoid statements like: “…because you delivered bad work…”

In the example from the beginning that could result in the following communication: “Mr Schneider, yesterday I read your quarterly report. The last few pages are missing and you only wrote two sentences on point x. I am annoyed because quality is important to me.”

Request

In order to fulfill our needs, we formulate a request at the end. In this way you remain focused on action and are not stuck feeling overly emotional. Because people like to help if they believe they are acting freely be sure to formulate the request with the correct attitude. Ask and do not demand. Ask for something that the other person can actually do – something that is in her power. Ask for a concrete action or make an explicit request for feedback on a particular topic.

The statement could then read as follows: “Mr Schneider, yesterday I read your quarterly report. The last few pages are missing and you only wrote two sentences on point x. I am annoyed because quality is particularly important to me. Please explain to me what needs to happen to improve the quality?”

And now for the whole statement:
“Mr Schneider, yesterday I read your quarterly report. The last few pages are missing and you only wrote two sentences on point x. I am annoyed. Quality is particularly important to me. Please explain to me how I can support you in improving the quality.”

Do you see the difference? This way you manage to cover both communication levels, the rational and the relational one. Non-violent communication in projects alleviates many stressful situations and it gives you back the energy you might have sunk into a conflict.

[1] More information on Freud’s iceberg theory at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconscious_mind 

[2] More information about the seven basic emotions by Paul Ekman at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Ekman

Susanne Lorenz is a communication trainer specializing in non-violent communication in the tradition of Marshall Rosenberg. She is also a goal determination coach. Using her linguistics degree, her many years of experience as a business leader and her training as a coach, she gives numerous seminars and workshops to empower people with leadership skills.

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