Improving relationships at work
Conflict with a colleague can sap a lot of energy and significantly lower your satisfaction at work.
If you know that healing a difficult relationship with your colleague would improve your working life, it might be worth trying to have a constructive dialogue. The following article may help you prepare and structure the talk.
Have you ever heard about “giraffe language”? It is an inspiring concept that can be used to structure difficult talks and resolve long-term conflicts, including those in the workplace.
The giraffe has the biggest heart of all animals living on Earth. The animal has become a symbol for communication that avoids assumptions and accusations.
Because accusations can only lead to a defence or an escape by the other person (e.g. from the talk), improving any relationship requires going beyond the fight or judgement. In other words, if one is to win and one to lose, the relationship as such cannot improve. Both persons need to be winners, so fighting does not make sense.
What works best?
Giraffe language consists of four components: observations, feelings, needs and requests – your own as well as those of the other person.
You will express your observations, feelings, needs and requests, without blame or demand.
Equally, although the other person might not speak the giraffe language, you will try to hear the other person´s needs and feelings behind any blame or demand the person might put on you. When people feel that we are really listening to them and that we care, they progressively lose the drive for accusation and they start listening too.
This approach helps to build a connection between the sides. Where there is a connection, there is a means for improvement.
You can find extensive information about this concept in the resources that were used for this article, or many others on the Internet (browse for “non-violent communication” or “giraffe language”). Here, we will focus on applying the rules to a talk with a colleague.
Structure your talk
Preparing the talk according to the following structure can be a good way of checking whether you are ready for the improvement from your side.
When ready, invite the colleague for a talk at a time and a place convenient for both of you. You should choose a time without rush, and a place where you will have enough privacy, so probably not in the corridor or in between discussing urgent e-mails.
During the talk, use the following structure:
1. Say what you have observed.
Use words such as “I have observed that we….”, “I can see that we…”, “I have noticed that we….”. Make it as neutral as possible. Avoid any interpretations or accusations, which will be easier if you use “I” and “we” instead of “you”.
Listen to the observations of the other side. Remember, the other side might not speak the giraffe language yet and might blame you, but you know it is worth resisting any accusations and going on in a non-violent manner.
2. Apologize for your part.
You do not need to apologize for the whole conflict, just for your contribution to it. In a tense relationship, there are always two sides building the tension up. Identify your contribution, admit it and apologize for it.
3. Appreciate the other side.
This is the biggest test of your readiness for improvement: if you struggle with listing at least one single positive thing about the other person that you truly appreciate, then you are probably not ready to resolve the conflict using this method. Consider using external help, such as mediation. Appreciating something about your colleague can be a difficult step, but it is crucial for moving forward.
4. Name your concerns and needs.
Say what, in your view, could be the consequences of the conflict if it goes on, and why you think the current state is a problem. Ask the other side whether (s)he agrees with this view. Listen to the concerns expressed by the other side.
Say what your need is. Not a demand towards the other side, (it is a demand when there is a threat of punishment if the other one does not follow it), but your inner need that has not been met and you wish that it had been. For example: “I need trust and freedom in choosing the way in which I complete my tasks.”
5. Suggest an alternative goal, a good outcome of the talk.
It needs to be a goal that is likely to be desired by both sides: something you can both agree on and you both wish for. If it is a colleague with whom you cooperate on a project, the goal can be, for example, that you will respect each other’s different work styles, with the aim of bringing the common project to a successful end.
6. Request specific actions.
Suggest what you could do now. The ideas should be very specific and it should be possible to do them right away, so that you do not end up with just vague promises. The suggestions could be a new common approach, requiring change on both sides, or it could be some rules you will then both try to follow.
For example: “How about introducing a new rule: from now on, when we are discussing who does what, we will focus on the results we need and the deadlines, but we will respect that the other person may work on it in a different way from ours? We will also let the other person speak without interruptions, then say what we like about the idea and potentially suggest some improvements. If we enter any conflict, we will talk it through on our own, not among other team members.”
Give the other side the possibility of agreeing or of coming up with other suggestions. You have suggested something that can help meet your needs. Now give the other side the opportunity to express their own needs and to come up with some suggestions.
Try to find agreements. You can also arrange the next appointment to talk through the improvement.
You always have the choice between waiting and hoping that the conflict evaporates or doing something pro-actively and now, to make your everyday working life more pleasant.
There are no guarantees that the method will work for any relationship, but it has helped improve many difficult ones, so it might enhance yours too.
If you wish to use coaching to prepare for a difficult talk, or to consider alternative solutions, you can contact me here.
The concept of NVC – nonviolent communication, also known as compassionate or collaborative communication or giraffe language, was initially developed by Mr. Marshall Rosenberg, a conflict mediator and communication professional who has inspired, trained and mediated thousands of people all around the world, including in war-torn areas.
Nonviolent Communication promotes reconciliation and peaceful resolution of differences, and has been used in many areas, including business, parenting, education, healthcare, psychotherapy, forensic treatment and peace programmes.