Working with words

Eish! I don’t like it when people I care for are hurt by careless words. I’m alarmed by what I hear about the poor quality of difficult conversations in the workplace.

A friend told me that his fearful anticipation of a particular conversation with his boss counted as the worst experience of his life. He said he felt trepidation, his breathing was shallow, his hands were clammy.

Words can both build and destroy. Dr Dorian Aiken, chairperson of ProCorp, shared with me Ruth Bebermeyer’s poem, Words Are Windows (or They’re Walls) :

I feel so sentenced by your words,
I feel so judged and sent away,
Before I go I’ve got to know
Is that what you mean to say?
Before I rise to my defence,
Before I speak in hurt or fear,
Before I build that wall of words,
Tell me, did I really hear?
Words are windows, or they’re walls,
They sentence us, or set us free.

Clients sometimes want to use a coaching session to prepare themselves for a difficult conversation. I offer handouts on four conversation models designed for “difficult” or “courageous” conversations.

Peter Hawkins’s CLEAR model provides a simple acronym with a strong check list. C: what’s the contract for the conversation? In other words, what commitments are both parties making with regard to the quality and sincerity of the engagement? L is about listening. E stands for exploring, but I also include evidence — what’s the data available to support positions taken and opinions ventured. A is for the action and accountability — the outcome of the conversation. And R is about reflecting on the experience and learning from it.

This is an easy model to use whether in the workplace or at home. It’s proved especially useful for performance coaching conversations when it’s important that each party comes prepared with facts.

David Servan-Schreiber, author of Instinct to Heal, provides a model that proved especially useful to me recently in deciding who to talk to about a problem. First of all I needed to work out who exactly would be the right person to have the conversation with. Servan-Schreiber’s acronym is STABEN. S stands for source — make sure you are dealing with the person who is the source of the problem and has the means to solve it. T is about finding the appropriate time and place. A is for commitment to an amicable approach. B is for behaviour and your ability to describe specifically what happened that caused offence. E is acknowledgement of your emotions and N stands for identifying what it is that you need for the future.

Martha Beck life coach Kristen Carter, who introduced me to this work, has added O for options. She says: “Stating needs may suffice, but sometimes exploring options for alternative solutions can help move the conversation and relationship forward positively.”

Nancy Kline’s Time To Think promotes a specific process for reducing conflict called “timed talk”. The premise has to be a shared intention that constructive engagement is the desired outcome. The two parties then begin a dialogue in which each person has equal, timed turns to speak and they commit themselves to listen respectfully, attentively and without interruption. A third party indicates time’s up and the speaker and listener switch roles. I’ve been a third party on several occasions and seen real shifts happen when words become “windows and not walls”.

But sometimes people are not ready to talk. A friend of mine, injured in a family altercation, is being chivvied to “forgive, let go and move on”. Speed is not recommended in Ron Kraybill’s Cycle of Reconciliation.

Kraybill identifies stages of recovery from conflict in a relationship. Stage one: Confirmation of the existence of a relationship as the starting point. Being in the relationship is what makes us vulnerable.

Stage two: Injury — one of us failed to meet the other’s expectations. Stage three is withdrawal, the “licking of wounds” and it may be some time before self-esteem recovers. Stage four: Reclaiming identity, which includes acknowledging hurt and anger and affirming your own needs. Stage four is the prerequisite to stage five: The internal commitment to reconciliation. This is the stage my friend is in now. She’s finding it hard to get her family to respect her need for time.

Stage six: Restoration of risk heralds the emotional readiness to engage in the relationship again, to put oneself at risk and it is the prerequisite for stage seven: Negotiation to meet present needs. Sometimes an apology is not enough. Restitution may not be possible or appropriate. What may be necessary is to work out what is needed for the same hurt not to happen again.

These four approaches can be effective, but there’s no guarantee of success. I’ve learned that sometimes organisational politics or personal emotions prevail to no good end. I’ve gone into some such conversations with low expectations. What I’ve felt good about is that I mustered the courage to have the conversation and I’ve walked away with my self-respect intact. And the value of that? Priceless.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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