Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Communication Breakdowns...When Things Go Unsaid or Unheard

Picture this, a beautiful August morning, a sweet toddler cuddles with his single mother, he plays and eats while she gets ready, they negotiate getting dressed, walk out the door...and boom, instant meltdown. Do you want to walk? No! Do you want to ride in the stroller?  No!  Do you want to ride the bus?  Bus!  And cue meltdown because he can't run around on the bus. Exit the bus with a squirming screaming child in one hand and a folded stroller in the other. Child reaches for sippy cup, sits in stroller and quiets down. Whew!  Walk in, put away the stroller and...outside!  No we have to go to class, want to see the guinea pigs first? No!  Cue collapse on the floor for dramatic effect. Thank goodness we are in a daycare where parents and adults look at you with empathy instead of disdain. Pick him up, take him to class, set him down with his cup and snack and cue dramatic collapse. Slowly share snacks with all the kids in the room because they all know I will. Once all the kids are eating their snacks at the table and I give him a hug and tell him I love him the other children say "bye bye" and he looks up and blows me kisses. And just like that he's back an ready for the day. I walk out of the room physically exhausted and shaking. What did I do wrong?  What did he want (other to run around) that I missed?  The terrible twos have just started, can I handle this alone?

I stop for breakfast and hit my favorite parenting sites with a search on temper tantrums 21 months. Their advice?  It is going to happen, make sure they are safe, let them work it out, help them learn communications skills to reduce their frustration and hi them when it is over so they know you still love them. Check, check, check, and check!  (Instant confidence boost!). Okay, I think I am ready to go to work now.  

And then it hit me. My son and I have a serious communication problem right now because he is not fully conversant in mine and I am not fully conversant in his. He thinks I am not hearing that he wants to run and I think he is not hearing that running near a busy street or on a bus are too dangerous. The reason the tactics above work is because it helps move us to a place where we can understand and really hear each other while keeping the values of love and respect up front.

And now my work brain kicks in. How many workplace conflicts are caused by people who are talking at each other and not hearing?  Just because we're adults does not mean we speak the same language. Just because we speak the same language does not mean the words mean the same thing to both parties. So...can we use the values based approach and process outline above to open up a productive dialogue to reduce conflict?

How would that look?  One possible value to consider, "I take pride in what I do and if I am working on teamwork I want to take pride in doing it well."  Another is as simple as "I like and respect the people I work with."

Next step, when someone is over the top stressed, let them vent. Encourage a quiet area where they can do it in confidentiality. Note, problem solving at this point is useless as they are in an amigdala hijack. I recommend a nice leisurely walk or a quiet relaxing location for the vent session. The listener should be as calm as can be and not delve for info or provide solutions. De escalation is the key. 

When they calm down, if they feel safe, they may say what should I do?  Again, refrain from problem solving. Use open questions to discuss what other interpretations may be clogging the communication and what tweets could invite a different reaction (teaching communication skills).  

Close with letting them know they are free to come back and follow up. Thank them for trusting you to be there for you. Reinforce that reducing their stress is important to you. 

What are your thoughts?  Do you use this method without feeling condescending. Do people pick up skills in learning to work themselves through the process and to help others in a similar way?