A key tenet of Communications 101 is that every communication has two messages: task and relationship. Usually when people are focused on the task, they are relatively civil in their discussions, at least until they disagree. Then, unless the conversation stays on the task at hand, it can turn very personal, no matter how persuasive you think you have been.
Tone changes when the emphasis of the conversation shifts from professional to personal, from task to relationship, especially during a disagreement and especially if we are blaming someone for something. The shift in the conversation makes people defensive and emotional, the focus on task is lost, and the relationship is now at stake. (See my article of 9/28/15 “From Professional to Personal” in the TMT Library www.mariasimpson.net.)
It’s really important to change that dynamic back to a focus on the task and get away from the emotional impact of increasingly uncivil language on the relationship. Bill Eddy works with highly emotional people and has some wonderful suggestions for defusing disagreement:
- Talk to the left, logical, side of the brain about projects and timelines until the logical side takes over the right, more emotional, side again.
- Identify options so that people don’t feel trapped and can see a way out of the conflict. (See my article of 7/14/15, “When Emotions Take Over the Conversation” previously called “High Emotions,” also in the TMT Library under Language www.mariasimpson.net.)
Another set of recommendations to address this shift comes from Ron Friedman in an HBR newsletter. He, too, explains, that when task and relationship become intertwined, the conversation can be very difficult and the tone can change pretty quickly.
Friedman recommends refocusing on the task by using a series of specific relationship-building statements called “PEARLS,” statements that reinforce relationships by focusing on Partnership, Empathy, Acknowledgement, Respect, Legitimation, and Support. (“Defusing an Emotionally Charged Conflict with a Colleague,” www.hbr.org/2016/01/defusing).
Suggestions for these statements include:
P: (I know) we can figure this out together
E: I can clearly hear your concern OR Your concern is clear (to me).
A: Your effort really shows here.
R: Your expertise is always important to our work.
L: Who wouldn’t be concerned about this?
S. I’d like to help (you) with this.
This pattern is especially effective because of how the pronouns are used. (I’ve changed some of them from Friedman’s original suggestions).
In conflict resolution we suggest making language less personal by taking out the pronouns “you” and “your,” especially at the beginning of sentences. These can be heard as accusations and can escalate the disagreement. (Instead of “your report is late,” try “the report is late” so that the conversation remains neutral and on task.)
The first example begins with “I know,” but that makes the statement about the speaker, not the relationship. To support the relationship, drop “I know” and start with “we,” a relationship building pronoun that focuses on partnership. Otherwise the statement can border on patronizing. “ I know,” (even if you don’t.)
But pronouns are perfectly appropriate when used thoughtfully. In the second example, depending on tone of voice, the statement can go either way. If “I” is emphasized (“I hear you”), that might imply that no one else does. (Same for the “to me” at the end of the statement.) Using the pronoun “your” at the beginning of the sentence makes it clear that attention has been paid to that specific person.
(I guess it has to be clear here that we are assuming the tone of voice used is not sarcastic or patronizing, or else any version of even the most thoughtful sentence can be interpreted as critical and undermine the relationship rather than support it.)
In the third and fourth examples (“your effort,” “your expertise”) the emphasis is on the other person and acknowledges contribution with respectful statements. In addition, “our work” includes the rest of the group, so the person knows everyone is respectful and supports relationships.
The fifth example, “Who wouldn’t be concerned?” is neutral and normalizes the concern, a standard mediation tactic.
The last example stays neutral and supportive only if the pronoun “you” is left out, or the statement could be misinterpreted, especially under highly fraught circumstances to mean, ”I’ll bail you out of this one (since you probably can’t do it yourself”).
Try these PEARLS of conversational wisdom and have an absolutely wonderful and peaceful week.