Make Your Point Without Starting a Fight!
The vast majority of us unthinkingly sabotage our own attempts to communicate with ingrained knee-jerk communication habits that contaminate the communication process with defensiveness before it even gets started. On a daily basis, managers and supervisors must request changes in behavior, procedures and even attitudes from their people, and this is always fertile ground for defensiveness and conflict.
There is no magic pill to keep this from happening, but here are some communication tactics that will dramatically lower the likelihood of defensiveness and conflict when you must make requests for change.
The key principle is in expressing what you want without making the other person feel a need to defend themselves or their actions in some way. Defensiveness focuses the attention on the people involved, and not the problem. It is always a roadblock to solving problems. This skill is the path to becoming a highly skilled communicator. Let me suggest a powerful technique that can change mediocre communicators into superstars!
Observe Without Evaluating
Begin with an observation of the problem, or description of what needs to be changed, which does not contain an evaluation. This is a bigger challenge than it sounds like on the surface because it’s just in our nature to constantly offer an evaluation. Here are 4 “precursors to conflict” which, if you are like most people, are likely to creep into your interactions nearly every day. Note also that each of them includes an evaluation that invites defensiveness.
Generalizations: “The people in your department have a bad attitude.” This contains two generalizations. The first is lumping all the people in the department into the same group. The second is in the use of the phrase “bad attitude.” Both of these generalizations are inherently unfair and the first thing that will flash into the mind of the person you say it to will be a defense against the evaluation that these statements represent. Much better would be, “Three people in your department have expressed disapproval of this.” This is much more likely to be a fact that does not inspire a defense on the part of the other person.
Absolutes: …are absolutely a no-no. (never, always, whenever, most, worst, nothing, everything, etc.) “You never do what I ask.” “You always cut corners.” “You’re the worst at this.” For one thing, absolutes are rarely true. These are evaluations that cause the other person to become defensive and cite exceptions to what you just said. They contribute nothing to you getting what you want. Much better might be: “Three times last year, and twice this year we’ve had this problem.” If you’re presenting self-evident facts, there’s much less likelihood of defensiveness.
Exaggerations: “There must be a million better ways to do this!” Better might be, “I can think of at least 2 ways you could do this better.” Exaggerations are self-evident false evaluations that stir the other person to defensiveness.
Assumptions: “You procrastinate at the tasks I give you to do.” Assumptions are evaluations based on no evidence, and often create a defensive dynamic. Better might be, “You have missed two of the last three deadlines on this project.”
Explain How the Behavior Impacts Needed Outcomes (not your emotional state)
If solving problems is truly your goal, and not just venting your displeasure, learn to describe how the undesirable behavior affects the outcome. How frustrated, or angry, or scared, or depressed, or humiliated, etc, you are is completely irrelevant. Making it about you, once again, introduces defensiveness into the picture. Note: You can get the first part of this right, and then destroy the process here. Don’t lose your professional face. Here are some examples of effective Observation Without Evaluation, and then sinking the process by losing your professional face.
“You told me your report would be on my desk by Monday morning, but it wasn’t there until Wednesday.” [This is good! Observation without evaluation] “And that really ticks me off!” [Oops. You just blew it.] Better would be: “This will delay the bidding process by two weeks and cost more money.”
State What You Need, and…Make a Specific Request
This is far more effective when stated in positive action language, not in terms of what you don’t want to happen. The more specific you are about what you want, the more likely you are to get it.
“I need to have confidence that the people in your department will respond quickly when I need information.” That’s the statement of need….
Here’s the request…
“Would you be willing to commit to responding to my emails within 24 hours?”
Simple stuff, huh? But powerful! Practice these techniques when you must request a change in behavior, procedures or even attitude, and it can cut conflict by half or more in your department. (Or even your home!)
Click here for a complete catalog of my blog posts with a brief description of their content.