Communication and Conflict Resolution
Nonverbal communication accounts for up to 93% of the emotional content of a message: Remember that body language must always be interpreted within the context of the conversation, the natural habits of the speaker, and the culture of the speaker. European Americans may consider lack of eye contact to be a sign of someone telling lies, whereas some Native-American cultures may see that as a sign of respect.
The way that we breathe is a powerful communication cue. If we are breathing in a shallow manner, then we are apt to be feeling nervous. If someone is taking long, slow deep breaths, then we can assume a certain level of calmness and centeredness. You can change the way that you feel by changing your breathing pattern. Practice taking long, slow relaxing breaths throughout the day. Take at least three slow breaths each time and notice how you might feel different.
Pay attention to the messages that you send others with the nonverbal communicators mentioned in your text. Remember that electronic communication, such as e-mail and text messaging, do not allow us to effectively communicate the emotional content of our words.
Barriers to Communication
The main barrier to effective communication, according to Marshall Rosenberg, communication and conflict resolution expert, is that we are afraid that we are not going to get our basic needs met (1999). The following is my understanding of his work:
There are six main barriers to communication that cause conflict:
• denial of accountability for ourselves;
• judging and evaluating others;
• honestly expressing our judgments instead of our own needs;
• not expressing our feelings and needs;
• not empathizing with ourselves and others; and
• demanding that others do things for us.
Denial of accountability for ourselves: We deny responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions when we say things such as, “You make me angry” or “I have to do this.” As soon as we deny responsibility, we take away our own power. If I think I “have to take attendance because it is the policy at DeVry,” then I am not owning my own power to make choices about what I will do. I take attendance because I want to stay employed here and I have agreed to fulfill that part of my job description.
We have little control over what the world serves up to us, but we do have control over how we respond to those events. If I make you the cause of my feelings, then I am stating that I have no control over my own emotional state. However, we all know that each of us has different emotional responses, given similar situations. Some people are “fit to be tied” after waiting 10 minutes for their ride to pick them up, while other people stay relaxed even after waiting 20–30 minutes. It may depend on whether you make the judgment that your ride “doesn’t respect your time” or whether you make the judgment that “it is so great for this person to take time out of their busy day to give me a ride.” We make the first and major step towards communicating effectively when we accept responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and fulfilling our needs and desires.
Rosenberg has spent his whole life exploring means for increasing our communication effectiveness. He developed a model to find a way around the communication barriers listed above. Rosenberg states that these steps are not the “right” or “proper” steps that you “should” follow when communicating. They are, however, steps that are more likely to enable you to get your needs met, thus reducing conflict and increasing a sense of connection with others.
Here are the four steps of his communication model:
1. Make an observation (without evaluation);
2. State your feelings;
3. Connect your feelings to unmet needs; and
4. Make a request of what would make life more wonderful.
Step 1 – Observation:
When we combine our observation with our evaluation, we are attempting to make our personal bias (evaluation, analysis, judgment) as “factual” as what it is that we objectively observed. An observation is that “you arrived home 30 minutes after you said that you would be here.” An evaluation of this scenario might be that “you don’t care about my feelings.” A mixture of the two could be something like, “You’re always home late because you don’t even care about me!” If you mix an evaluation into your observation, then people are likely to only hear criticism and they are less likely to hear the rest of your message about what you need.
Step 2 – Expressing our feelings:
It is important to be able to express what you are feeling in order to be genuine. Oftentimes, we see expression of feelings as a choice to be vulnerable. It is one of the great qualities of being human, because it allows us to connect with others. Consequently, from lack of practice, many of us don’t know how to express our feelings. We often say something similar to “I feel like you should . . .” (or “I feel that you . . .”) This is not a feeling. It is a thought. Feelings are simply expressed as, “I am feeling overwhelmed” or “I am feeling so amazed!”
Usually, when we are feeling angry, it is because of the moral judgments that we are making. We are trying to play God by seeing the other person as wrong and in need of punishment. It is more helpful to focus on our needs than to disempower ourselves by focusing on the actions of others. The feelings of anger are not bad or wrong, but they are more superficial expressions of what we are really feeling and needing.
Expressing honesty of judgments instead of honesty of our needs and feelings often leads to more conflict. Failure to express feelings can lead to more misunderstandings, as people must create their own stories about how they feel.
Step 3 – Connecting our feelings with needs:
It is of utmost importance that we connect our feelings to our needs. We feel unhappy because we have an unmet need, not because of what someone else did. They did not do anything wrong. They were doing the best that they could to get their needs met, given what options they saw at the time. It is our responsibility to meet our needs. Our feelings about our unmet needs are our responsibility, and it is within our power to get them met.
When you are thinking about your needs, it is important to remember that needs are universal and that they don’t contain reference to specific things or specific people. I don’t “need you to go to the store to get potato chips for me,” rather “I need food.” Our strategy to get our needs met is best left for our request (Step 4) of asking someone to do something. Women, more than men, have been taught not to have needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which clarifies basic human needs, may be especially helpful to women who are apt to express needs like a legal case because they have internalized the belief that they have no right to their needs. If we don’t connect our feeling to our need, but instead connect it to what someone else has done, we will come across as criticizing and will have given the power of our feelings to others.
Step 4 – Requesting that which would make our lives more wonderful:
When people request us to do something, we usually do it with more joy in our hearts than when people make demands on us to do something. It is easy to tell a request from a demand by the response: if the request/demand is denied and the person responds badly (verbal attack, pouting, criticism), then it was a demand.
The request is a strategy for meeting our needs. If the person denies our particular request, perhaps he or she will have some other ideas on strategies that might be helpful in getting our needs met. If we have grown up in a dysfunctional family, we will often have limited strategies for getting our needs met. If we can clearly express our need, oftentimes, others will have ideas on how we can get the need met.
The purpose of a request or fulfilling a request is to make someone’s life more wonderful. Marshall Rosenberg says that if you can’t fulfill the request with “the joy of a child feeding the ducks in the park,” then don’t do it. Always ask yourself whether you are giving freely, giving in, or giving up. If you or the other person is not giving freely, someone is going to pay.
Another important aspect to sound communication is to make sure that we clearly heard what others said. An effective tool for this is reflective listening: Most people will not speak to us by stating their observations, feelings, needs, and requests. It will be our job to hear the feelings and needs behind the words that the person is saying. We can try asking them about their feelings, or if we think that would not be helpful, ask them what they need. If we empathize with the person and put ourselves in his or her shoes, it should be quite easy to know what the person might need.
It is often difficult for us to listen fully to someone else. We often think that we have to solve the problem or ease their pain. Often, all we have to do is really listen and validate what the person said without inserting our opinion or evaluation. Observe what has been said and mirror it back (without parroting it).
Values play a major role in communication. Values are the ideas, actions, and behaviors that are of worth and importance to us as human beings. They provide the foundation for human behavior. Most of what we value has been taught to us by others, such as our families and our peers. Some things that we value are self-respect, fame, friendship, wisdom, and financial security. Since we act on what we believe, it is easy to see how our values and our judgment of what the truth is can impact our logic and decision making.
To prioritize your values, think about why your values are important to you, who taught them to you, how they have affected your past decisions, and in what ways they will impact your future decisions.