“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing, and right-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”
We can all benefit from a more open and honest mode of communication with each other, of knowing that it's okay to ask and to speak openly about what we feel ― that, too is the product of culture. When we become better at communicating, we enrich our lives and transform our workplace.
Hannah du Plessis teaches change leaders and their teams the fundamentals of creating together across differences. Because of her culture and her work, Hannah came to appreciate the value of understanding nonviolent communication.
Much of what passes for communication at work doesn’t connect us with our colleagues. When we diagnose, judge, or assert our status, we block empathy. Real communication isn’t a quest for control: it helps people to connect, learn from each other, and discover new possibilities.
By her own admission, Hannah was raised to keep conversations peaceful and pleasant:
If I thought my opinion might cause conflict, I’d keep it to myself. This didn’t serve me. When I was on the verge of losing my business, I realized the consequences of giving up my voice. During this crisis I learned about nonviolent communication (NVC), a way of speaking honestly without attacking others.
In an age of messaging, with social streams filled with public notes for the world to see and find it has become increasingly difficult to develop our own voice. The potential for social media to expose the ideas of anyone with a connection and access to a browser is tremendous, but so is the social pressure to conform, do as others and our tribes do… or else.
Independent thought thrives in eras of moderate change. When the change goes all the way down to zero, or is so small we don't perceive it, we conserve energy and may not have enough incentives to come up with new ideas. When change accelerates beyond our ability to keep up with it or predict, we may take a 'wait and see' approach.
The public nature of much of our messages in social networks (one could say also most forms of electronic transmissions like email and text) added to the exponential rate of change and uncertainty in the future are a powerful incentive to make independent thought difficult. It's a cultural environment that makes individual thinking risky.
Seeking approval from others is at odds with individual evolution. Yet when exposed to what everyone else is doing, our social nature seduces us to go along. To do original thinking and writing, many choose a solitary life or and environment free of potential distractions, including the thoughts of others, which are more available than ever before.
Resisting the urge to check in with everyone else helps us beyond expressing our ideas. Because we tend to also accumulate knowledge and find it difficult to evolve our thinking by approaching topics and situations with a beginner's mind. It's often harder to unlearn things we think we know than it is to learn new things.
A desire to develop independent thought and the skill to learn things with an open mind rather than from notion or assumptions are desirable traits, especially in a world that changes so fast. In a way, change is a great leveler, nobody can claim to have it all figured out. But we do have this habit of comparing our insides to other people's outsides.
True dialogue can help us get in touch with our thoughts, say what we mean, and get what we need. This is the value proposition of nonviolent communication. It works by helping us express clearly how we are, without blaming or criticizing, and receiving how we are without hearing blame or criticism, with empathy.
Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg developed nonviolent communication in the 1960s. It's a process that focuses on three aspects of communication:
- self-empathy ― a deep and compassionate awareness of one's own inner experience
- empathy ― an understanding of the heart in which we see the beauty in the other person
- honest self-expression ― expressing oneself authentically in a way that is likely to inspire compassion in others
The principle that underscores it is the idea as human beings we have the capacity for compassion and only resort to violence or behavior that harms others when we fail to recognize more effective strategies for meeting needs. Culture plays a major role in forming habits of thinking and speaking that lead to the use of psychological and physical violence.
Two sides to a conversation ― listening with empathy on one, and expressing with honesty on the other. Our communication is made of observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Dr. Rosenberg says, “Nonviolent Communication shows us a way of being very honest, without any criticism, insults, or put-downs, and without any intellectual diagnosis implying wrongness.”
Learning to choose the appropriate word helps us change how we connect with others. We must take great care to develop the lens through which to filter our individual experience. On one side, the conversation we have with ourselves determines what we see, and also the opportunities we attract.
The conversation we have with others can benefit us as well. If the whole world is reduced to an issue, Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee's son) calls it “that chip on the shoulder,” we can't see anything without it. Hard to influence what we cannot see. But if we are curious about the issue and look to understand how it came to be, that's when the open the door to a new perspective.
A leader signals intentions by acting differently, set the tone for a new culture. According to Microsoft's Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith, Satya Nardella's first act after becoming CEO in 2014 was to ask company officers to read Nonviolent Communication. In an interview with GE's Beth Comstock, Nadella says the idea was to shift the company from a “know-it-all” culture to a “learn-it-all” culture.
Now if we can only do away with calling them soft skills vs. hard skills… they're just skills appropriate to the task. Microsoft went from eroded to renewed relevance thanks to the understanding that collaboration is a better way to operate in a complex and fast changing world. We experience sincere communication, we can learn to express our feelings and our needs and to be less stingy on recognizing the work of others. Genuine enthusiasm is infectious.
[image via Michael Sahota]