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Monday, June 30, 2014

Comunication in the Workplace

The maxim that "everyone should be treated with respect" does not mean that everyone should be treated in the same way. Due to cultural differences, personal preferences and individual perceptions, behaviors which may be acceptable to some will be offensive to others. A good example of this is direct eye contact, which may be interpreted in very different ways across different cultures. Looking another person in the eyes may be seen as a sign of open and honest communication in one culture, but in others, the same behavior can be seen as impolite, disrespectful, aggressive, and even threatening.

When introducing diversity to the already complex process of communication, it becomes much more complicated, but also a much richer experience—and opens a path to learning more about other cultures.

Get to know those whom you perceive to be different from you. Speak with them. Listen to them. Exchange perspectives. Ask them how they perceive you; tell them how you perceive them (tactfully); discuss those ways in which you are the same, think the same, feel the same. On those issues where you disagree, agree to disagree respectfully.
This may sound simple, but can actually be quite difficult for many of us. The keys to better understanding and acceptance, conflict resolution, inclusion and positive personal or professional inter-relationships all begin with open, effective communication.
Half the process of open, effective communication involves the active use of language. Some rules to remember for effective speaking, or writing include:
  • Use Respectful Language
  • Lower the Volume – vocally and verbally
  • Avoid Exaggeration
  • Do Not Use Dogmatic Language
  • Focus on "I" rather than "You"
    Use Respectful Language:

    This means to remain polite and professional, avoid interrupting the speaker or dominating the conversation. Do not engage in insulting or obscene remarks.
    Steer clear of name calling and emotionally charged words, like: racist, sexist, homophobe, man-hater. These only serve to make the target of the language defensive and angry, causing the impact of the message to be lost or, at best, weakened. If the other person is using offensive language and name-calling, avoid sinking to his or her level.
Often, when abusive language occurs on campus, those involved or aware of it either minimize its harmful nature or attempt to place the blame elsewhere. This is often the case when the language is meant to be humorous. There is a temptation to believe that we are not guilty of offensive behavior because we do not initiate it, or because those who are being demeaned are not present. An honest appraisal of our own actions, however, may suggest otherwise.

Collusion is cooperation with others, intentionally or unintentionally, to reinforce stereotypical attitudes and biases, or disrespectful, harmful language. There are three types of collusion:
  • Silence. It may seem harmless, but it can reinforce stereotyping, lack of value for diversity, and lack of respect for individuals or groups.
  • Denial. Providing an excuse, not only for the person engaging in the offensive behavior, but also for ourselves, so we may avoid the discomfort of expressing disapproval.(Example: "She doesn't mean anything by it." "It's only a joke.")
  • Active participation. The most obvious and damaging type of collusion.

    Lower the Volume – vocally and verbally: Whether attempting to inform another why his words or actions were perceived as offensive; or responding to another's accusation that you behaved inappropriately; or just asking for, or providing, clarification of a differing viewpoint, it is best to avoid raising your voice or the intensity of your words. Shouting and becoming emotionally agitated during a conversation may appear aggressive, arrogant or irrational to those listening. It often provides the listener with a reason to "shut out" what is being said, or shouted.

    When we are personally or emotionally invested in the topic being discussed, it is sometimes difficult to control our tone and volume, as well as our words. But, as difficult as it may be, controlling how we present our message is essential to getting listeners to respond to what we are saying rather than how we are saying it. Ask yourself: "When I feel personally attacked by someone's shouting, sarcasm or insults, do I listen to what they are saying, or do I try and think of ways to defend myself?" Speaking loudly or angrily is viewed as threatening to most people, often causing them to respond in the same unproductive manner.

    Avoid Exaggeration: Exaggeration is when we distort the reality of a situation by overstating, or intensifying the facts.

    For example:
    "You ALWAYS exclude me from ANY decision making process!"
    "Can't you, for ONCE, just listen to what I have to say?"
    "If it were up to you, there wouldn't be a person of color employed in the entire organization!"
    "You NEVER consider ANYTHING suggested by a woman!"
    "The ONLY thing your religion teaches you is how to hate!"
    These types of comments make it very easy for the object of the tirade to ignore the statements as absurd. Such exaggerations can often be disproved with just one example to the contrary and therefore not worth considering. Sticking to facts and specific examples go a lot further in getting the attention of the person you want to engage in a discussion. 

  • Consider the different impact each of the following comments may have on the person being addressed:
    "You NEVER consider ANYTHING suggested by a woman!"


    "You didn't even acknowledge Marta's suggestion regarding the database, though it was an excellent one. Ms. Humber's recommendation for the schedule change was ignored until the same idea was expressed by Mr. Wilfred – then it was implemented. And now you won't allow me to even present my marketing idea to the committee, but you can't give me a good reason for that decision. It seems to me that women in this department are being marginalized. I believe that is intentional and I'd like to hear your response." 

  • Do Not Use Dogmatic Language: This means to avoid statements such as:
    "I've always been taught that…"; "It's in the Bible"; "It's the American way." "Science has shown that . . . " or "It's the law."
    These comments do not go far in supporting most arguments, and may even be offensive if the individual the comment is directed to is of a different religion, culture, social background, country, or has the opinion that laws and/or science are often used to support and encourage discriminatory behaviors.

  • Quoted "authorities" such as the Law, the Bible, and science often have more than one interpretation, or are credited with proving a point not actually supported by the statement. For instance:
  • Quoting scientific data that women, as a group, have less muscle mass than men does not support an argument that a woman cannot perform as well as a man in a particular physical job.
  • Stating that America was founded by Christians does not support an argument that Muslims should not hold office or executive positions in the United States.
  • Referencing the fact that the constitution guarantees free speech is not a valid argument to justify name-calling directed at co-workers.
  • Pointing out issues regarding illegal immigration does not justify harsh attitudes toward foreign-born individuals who legally reside in this country
There are more effective ways to communicate. When a disagreement arises, try to analyze your own feelings and the personal biases which may contribute to them. Then attempt to be equally open to recognizing the life experiences which may have brought the other person to the position he or she holds. Finally, look for common ground. It isn't necessary that you agree on all points, just so you respect each other's differences and attempt to find a fair resolution to any present conflict.

Focus on "I" rather than "You": It is usually much more effective to tell another person how you feel about a comment, behavior or situation than to confront that person with why his or her actions or language (as you perceive them) are incorrect or offensive.

 For example:
"I just don't believe that" instead of "That's a lie!"
"I was offended by that statement" instead of "You are rude and insulting."
"I feel that my input is being ignored" rather than "You people just can't accept that someone of my age (race, position, education level . . .) may have something worthwhile to contribute, can you?”

Perhaps one way to avoid focusing on the other person's behavior is to attempt to remove the word "you" or "your" from assertive comments. Which of the following would most people prefer to hear when having their supervisor hand back a report they've submitted?

  • "This report needs several corrections before I can send it to the Board." or
  • "You made a lot of mistakes in this report and you had better fix them. I can't send this mess you've written to the Board."
We probably all agree that the first example would be better received and probably result in less conflict, less defensiveness and a more productive completion of the task.

Effective Listening

Practicing effective speaking skills is just one half of the process of improving communication. The other side of the coin is effective listening.

Listening attentively is a skill that needs to be developed and practiced. It does not come easily. Often we try to interpret the speaker's message based on our own perceptions and expectations instead of being open to the true meaning and intent of the speaker.

Some rules of effective listening are:
  • Really listen. Stay present, in the moment.
  • Listen for the emotions as much as the words.
  • Do not allow anger or defensiveness to interfere with listening.

    Really listen. Stay present, in the moment. Try to focus on the speaker's words, without interruptions or defensiveness. Give it your undivided attention and try to suspend judgment in an attempt to understand the speaker's message. If you are too busy preparing what you will say next, you will not truly hear what is being said.
    Are you distracted by the way the person looks, sounds, or dresses? Do you think the person is less knowledgeable about the topic because of his/her culture or ethnicity? Are you silently criticizing the speaker's accent, voice or manner of speech? Are you allowing your own biases to interpret meaning or intent which the speaker does not mean to convey?
    When you avoid traps like these, you can start to hear the true words and meaning of what is being said.
Listen for the emotions as much as the words. Try to understand the speaker's thoughts and feelings. Carefully restate or paraphrase what the speaker has said in a way that lets the individual know that you are really listening and trying to get the full meaning of what is being said. This also gives the other person an opportunity to correct misunderstandings before they seriously disrupt the communication process.
Often the true message of what a speaker is saying comes from the emotions behind the words. Imagine the speaker's intent and ask questions to help both of you obtain a clearer understanding of any underlying issues. Attentively listening for the whole message, spoken and unspoken, will enhance the communication process for all parties.

Do not allow anger or defensiveness to interfere with listening. Preconceived ideas may make us react initially with anger or frustration. When this is the case, we are not really hearing what the speaker is trying to say. A listener's emotional reaction is counterproductive to effective listening.

As discussed earlier, this reaction might be more about the listener's sensitivities than what the speaker actually intended. If a person says something that seems derogatory or inflammatory, make sure you understood the person clearly before getting angry. Try to understand (not necessarily agree with) his perspective.
Even if the other individual intended his comments to be insulting, you can be the better person by accepting his emotional state and attempting to steer the conversation to an area of common ground, hopefully resulting in a more respectful exchange of ideas.

Conflict Resolution

Conflict is unavoidable. In the work place or educational setting, especially, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in any such environment there will be both healthy and unhealthy conflict.
Healthy debate among diverse members of a team frequently leads to better strategies, perspectives and problem solving. This type of interchange should be encouraged as it provides opportunities for team members to challenge their own viewpoints while also challenging the team to stretch its potential and find more ways to excel.

Unhealthy, or destructive, conflict is divisive, interferes with the ability to succeed as a team, and can be demeaning and abusive towards groups or individuals. This type of conflict is characterized by getting off task and into the realm of personal attacks, interruptions, emotional outbursts, finger-pointing, and an inability or unwillingness for either side of the conflict to understand or concede an inch of ground to the other.

All too often, unhealthy conflicts are side-stepped or swept under the rug instead of addressed head on, especially if they are a result of uncomfortable situations involving a clash of cultures or diverse perspectives. Often unresolved conflict may appear to fade away, but is actually churning just under the surface, ready to explode in even more destructive ways. For this reason, you should not avoid an opportunity to openly discuss a situation because you fear it will lead to a confrontation. Sometimes confrontation is the best way to achieve understanding and promote cooperation.

Conflict Resolution

Guidelines for controlling destructive conflicts include:
  • Sit down together with the stated purpose of clearing the air and improving relationships.
  • Allow one person to speak at a time.
  • No personal attacks or attempts to speak for others.
  • Keep emotions to a minimum.
  • Give each participant an uninterrupted opportunity to share viewpoints, experience or understanding with others.
When you believe an associate's comments or behaviors are inappropriate, address it calmly and non-confrontationally. Be specific about what you'd like to have happen in the future.

For example:
"I understand you told the Vice President that my current personal situation is interfering with my ability to manage this project. I don't feel it is anyone's place but my own to discuss my personal life. In the future, if you think it is necessary to do so, please address your concerns to me personally, or, if you believe there is a legitimate need to discuss my personal life with others, I would expect to be included in that conversation."

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