COMMUNICATING WITHOUT CONFLICT: How to deliver hard messages and get positive results in moments of pressure
We all know relationships can take a huge strain when you are in the thick of Christmas, with the pressure of mis-en-place, bookings and heaving dining rooms. Tempers can flair and it is easy to say something in the heat of the moment. Often, the things that you’re saying are extremely important and valid – it might be addressing the way someone is working which negatively impacts the team’s efficiency or the guest experience, or it might be challenging someone whose behaviour is causing issues, or it might even be flagging a health and safety issue. During moments of pressure – either busy services or busy times of year – our delivery of messages can be shorter, sharper and less considered. But failing to start conversations well, either through lack of thought or lack of time, often leads to conflict which can escalate.
In this diagram, the message intended by the speaker is at 100% when it’s in their head. The words that they choose will manage to convey about 60% of their intended message. Once the words have left their mouth, the listener will actually hear about 40% of the message and then, in their interpretation, only about 20% of the message will be received. It is extremely useful to bear this in mind when you are communicating; the 20% the listener receives could be entirely influenced by your tone, or body language, or even by past interactions. It’s important to tailor your messaging to make the 20% as effective as possible at conveying your intention effectively and positively.
Read the five feedback messages below and rank-order them based on which you would guess would be the most difficult to hear:
- You are a poisonous person.
- You don’t ask people if they have time, you just engage when it is convenient for you.
- You are a thief. You are scum.
- When you lose your temper, it makes others feel disrespected.
- You need to take a deep look at yourself and find and eliminate your short-comings.
This ‘feedback puzzle’ was put to hundreds of people to perform. We assume that the frankly quite shocking numbers 1 and 3, which are major judgements delivered in really extreme language, would hurt a lot more than the minor criticisms delivered in more measured language. We think that being called ‘scum’ would be deeply scarring. However when the responses to the puzzle were analysed it turned out that all of the messages were equally hurtful. It didn’t matter the context or the delivery.
In essence, when you are in a heated conversation and you say something – even something you don’t deem as offensive – what you say can be perceived as a threat by the listener. This could be a threat to the person’s safety (be it perceived physical, social or material) or a threat to their worth (sense of self-respect, self-regard or confidence). It doesn’t really matter what you are saying, the person is already on the defence.
So how can we bring down the defences in that moment, so that the listener can really hear your message and your intention – getting you to the end of service happy, and resolving the problem positively? Here are some useful tips for conflict-free communication, even (especially!) when the message you’re delivering is tricky to hear.
Watch your proximity – Don’t stand too near or too far away. It is really important to also not lean in as this type of body language can be seen as aggressive, and being too far away can appear aloof.
Try not to gesticulate – limit the movements with your hands. Too much hand movement can be seen as threatening, particularly if it results in pointing. The best body language to use is actually called ‘mirroring’. This is where you mirror the other person, as it generates a reaction in the brain that senses social bonding and reduces the level of conflict.
Tone and tempo are everything – Try to keep your tone calm, steady and sincere. If you can feel this changing in yourself take some long deep breaths before you respond or talk. Another useful technique is to allow pauses. Space gives you time to readjust your tone and think about the best way to respond.
Be clear and concise – Be specific about what you need or what the problem is. Do not get off track and bring up more than one point at a time, or you’ll confuse the other person.
Deal with the here and now – keep all references to any past disagreements or issues in the past. What you are trying to deal with right now is more than enough and when you start bringing up the past, the point of the conversation can be lost and you can leave with a feeling like nothing has been resolved.
Make It Safe – apologise, find a quick solution, ask how you can help, compromise and then come back to conversation when there is time to really talk it through.
You will also need to follow up at a later date, not only to check that your relationship with that person is still intact but to ensure that safety and trust is restored. This may take a few meetings, trust and safety take time to establish or reestablish, so once you have had some time and space, arrange to meet face to face with the person:
Start with the Heart – think about what you actually want for the relationship, for yourself and whether the current situation is supporting that or not.
Share your facts – it is easy to get drawn into conjecture and opinions, stay focused on what has happened. Also avoid hearsay.
Explain your story – use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘You’ statements. If someone has upset you, don’t start with ‘You upset me…’. It is better to approach it with ‘I feel upset because….’ .
Ask for the other person’s story – when they are telling their story, properly listen. When you are not speaking don’t just be planning what you are going to say next, actively listen to what is being said and respond when appropriate.
Talk tentatively – tell your story as a story rather than disguising it as hard fact. ‘In my opinion’… says that you are sharing an opinion and no more.
Encouraging testing – talk through ideas and options for a resolution, some preventative strategies or some ways forward.
A Note on Whatsapp and Email
Email and whatsapp are not good at conveying subtle social nuances, attitudes and tone. Without non-verbal cues, they can easily be misread as hostile, sarcastic or even stupidity. Send them at social hours and re-read what you have written before sending it.
If it is a lengthy message, pick up the phone, discuss it and then follow up with an email or message about what you have agreed. Don’t add to people’s workloads and don’t start massive discussions over email.
If you are angry, frustrated or upset, don’t email at all. Wait 24 hours and meet in person.
Don’t reply all, unless really necessary.
Keep the tone, words and expressions professional. Don’t be Matt Hancock.
Do send messages of thanks and gratitude. Focus on the positives and acknowledge when you see good things.