Once I worked with a colleague who was repeatedly late creating work that I needed to complete my task. I knew he was busy, but I was too, and I was increasingly frustrated by his behavior. I didn't know what to say, however, or how to say it. I didn’t want to offend him. I realized that I’d been beating around the bush, hinting and not being direct. I think I was afraid that I’d explode if I confronted him, so I said nothing. What a dilemma.
In time, I learned that I wasn’t alone. Most of us swing from being too assertive (maybe aggressive) to being too passive. In the process, we use various communication patterns that inhibit the interaction that we want.
Typical Communication Patterns
Tracy Dowdy, CVPM, of MRG Consulting, LLC based in San Diego, consultant to veterinarians, said, “I have seen firsthand how the failure to communicate effectively often leads to conflict, which can harm the practice through poor teamwork, rumors and gossip. Practices that suffer from communication problems likely have no defined, company-wide communication strategies in place. Improving workplace communication involves developing a communication protocol that all employees are expected to follow.”
In order to substitute more effective responses and establish a communication protocol, I think it is useful to first recognize those patterns of speaking that get in the way of listening, learning and solving problems.
I found that a useful inventory of those responses are those created by Dr. Thomas Gordon of Gordon Training International. Dr. Gordon was a colleague of the influential humanistic psychologist, Dr. Carl Rogers, who wrote, "Carl Rogers on Personal Power: Inner Strength and Its Revolutionary Impact." To bring Rogers’ techniques to help people who were not psychologists (i.e., parents, professionals, civic leaders) improve their communication skills, Gordon outlined what he called “Roadblocks to Communication.”
I’ve grouped them into three broad categories.
1. Judging the Other Person
We tend to use these comments when we think we are right and the other person is wrong. See if you recognize any:
Criticizing, Judging, Blaming: Making a negative evaluation of the other person, his/her actions, or attitudes. For example:
- “You’re not doing it right.”
- “If this pet doesn’t thrive, you’ll know that it’s because you didn’t XYZ.”
This kind of message is intended to make the other person feel bad, incompetent, inadequate, inferior and/or stupid. Often, however, it just makes him or her want to avoid you.
Name-calling, Ridiculing, Shaming: Examples:
- “That was a careless thing to do!”
- “You know better than that.”
- “Don’t be stupid.”
- “Just like a woman.”
- “You are a softee.”
When we use these types of comments, we intend for the other person to see him or herself as we do. Unfortunately, in reality that person tends to zero in on the unfairness of our comment instead.
Diagnosing: Analyzing why a person is behaving as he/she is. In this case, we attempt to play the amateur psychiatrist role. Here are some examples:
- “You are doing that to irritate me.”
- “Just because you studied at XYZ, you think you are better than I am.”
Threatening someone is one of the roadblocks to effective communication.
2. Sending Solutions
Armed with education and experience, we often know the answer. We’re busy and want to “cut to the chase,” solve the problem and move on. Unfortunately, by our sending the solution we prevent our teammate or client from coming up with the solution, and it often compounds a problem or creates new ones without resolving the original dilemma. See if these types of comments are familiar:
Ordering: This is when we command the other person to do what we want to have done.
- “Put these things away before you leave.”
- “Don’t leave a mess for others to clean up.”
Threatening: To add pressure to our order we add a negative consequence. For example:
- “You’ll do it or else XYZ.”
- “If you can’t remember to______, I’ll have to_________.”
Moralizing: It’s often tempting to tell another person what he/she should do. After all, when you know better, you want to share your perspective. For example:
- “You shouldn’t tell a client that.”
- “You ought to tell him you are sorry.”
- “You should call if you’re going to be late.”
Excessive/Inappropriate Questioning: Frequently we use questions as a way to suggest solutions or get the information we need to arrive at the right solution. For example:
- “When did it happen?”
- “Why did you do it that way?”
Advising: Similar to ordering, we also use this pattern when we want the other person to behave in a certain way. We might say, “If I were you, I’d XYZ.”
Or, “The best way to handle that would be XYZ.”
3. Avoiding the Problem
You might think that avoiding is the best way to avoid tension in the relationship. It is true, sometimes it is best to give a conflict a rest and let cooler heads prevail. But, in the end, the problem needs to be addressed. Frankie Williams, SPHR, MAOM, of the Williams Consulting and Coaching Group, finds that some people are not courageous when they communicate, so she offers a course for veterinary practices called “Courageous Communication.”
She says that this helps team members develop communication that “is honest and straightforward without being demeaning and allows effective dialogue that the other person actually hears and listens to instead of dialog during which the other person only waits for a pause to respond.”
“Courageous Communication” will replace:
Diverting: At this point, you might make a joke or change the subject. Maybe you like to obfuscate.
Reassuring: Instead of saying that you want to say, you try to patch things up by saying, “You really work well when you XYZ.” Certainly affirmation is appropriate and can help build a positive relationship. Just remember not to use this pattern as a way to avoid addressing the issue that concerns you. Now you’re probably asking—if I’m to avoid these “roadblocks,” what can I say? How do I address my concern?
Now you’re probably asking—if I’m to avoid these “roadblocks,” what can I say? How do I address my concern?
Stay tuned. In our next column we’ll explore an effective alternative.
Carolyn C. Shadle, Ph.D., is the co-owner of ICS Workplace Communication (www.veterinariancommunication.com ). Shadle was awarded her Ph.D. by the State University of New York at Buffalo in interpersonal and organizational communication and has trained managers and team members in businesses as diverse as General Mills and Oracle’s Sun Microsystems. She is a certified Myers-Briggs assessor and trained with Gordon Training International. Find her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest.