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Finding Your Voice: Truth-telling in the Workplace

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I had to laugh when a friend told me recently that he’d never had trouble finding his shout, but the concept of finding his voice was really new to him. When my laughter subsided I was able to assure him that he’s by far not alone! Dynamic tension is a marvelous and necessary source of creative energy in the workplace, yet it amazes me that more businesses don’t implode. Often the tension present is more destructive than it is generative. From the point of contact with customers to executive offices and everywhere in between I’ve watched at Highest Vision as people launch their words like torpedoes designed to obliterate a monstrous enemy or, on the contrary, stuff overwhelming frustrations or brilliant ideas until they all but explode from them. Often the higher the stakes, the more dysfunctional the communication!

The first impulse for many who use the bulldozer approach is to say that they don’t care how they sound or how their message is received. They’re convinced that they’ve earned the right, that it’s the only way to get something done, or that the recipient of their wrath deserves everything they’ve sent their way—and then some! On the other hand, many of those who are unwilling to put their voices out there have developed a “learned helplessness” (no one listens anyway), hold a belief that they don’t have the intelligence, right or authority to offer their perspective, or they’ve experienced repercussions and will no longer risk having their thoughts and feelings used against them. Rather than being overbearing, these individuals have voices that are offered as mere squeaks, are targeted at the wrong people, or are used long after they could be of value.

Unfortunately the costs associated with these two communication extremes are more than individuals or the organizations that employ them can responsibly overlook. Finding our voices, whether that means having to draw back to find them or having to excavate them from the very depths of our souls, is about reclaiming the vitality that fuels meaningful successes.

The sad irony of poor communication is that when people are removed from the person or situation that has evoked their specific reaction they can describe in detail what effect their yelling, demanding, or stifled voices will have on the outcome of the exchange. They know that one “side" will either angrily and resentfully capitulate while then seeking to undermine the other, or the two will get locked into a power battle in which, ultimately, everyone loses. The obvious losses include: alienated customers, unspoken resentments that leave colleagues working against rather than with each other, and a diminished bottom line.

Specifically these things translate into lost time, energy, money, and productivity, as well as the agility to respond quickly to changes in one’s industry or the economy. Increased stress, compromised health and outcomes that are far less than what is possible can send the people involved scurrying to find a more amenable work environment.

If people know the results aren’t going to serve them well either in the short or long-term, why do so many insist on staying stuck in ineffective communication patterns? After all, as is so often quoted, the definition of insanity is to repeat the same behaviors over and over expecting different results.

Unfortunately, many simply aren’t conscious of their own pattern, believe that it is caused by others or the environment, and/or don’t know what to do instead. For some they’ve simply become accustomed to “power battles” and believe that when there are issues that people feel passionately about these dynamics are unavoidable.

How can you speak out without alienating others?

****Check your intent and be thoughtful of your delivery****
Is your goal to respectfully communicate? Address the issue or behavior without making it a personal attack. Use the person’s name (when appropriate) and a compassionately assertive tone of voice—even when your voice must also convey an intensity of feeling or conviction. Avoid labels, name-calling or use of “trigger words.” (“You arrogant, self-centered, manipulative jerk” has never been the kind of phrase that invites thoughtful discussion!)

****Take up your share of space—no more, no less.****
Conceptually, two people can only take up a finite amount of space. If you take up too much of that space it invites others to battle you for their fair share or to resentfully cower in the small corner you’ve left to them. On the other hand, because nature abhors a vacuum, if you take up too little space, it invites others to expand and overpower you. Hold your head up, offer good eye contact, but keep your muscles relaxed. Slamming your truth into someone’s face invites them to instinctually recoil and/or come out fighting; never putting your needs out there for someone else to consider almost guarantees that you’ll be overlooked, stepped on, or pushed aside. Be willing to contribute whatever it is you have to offer.

**** Recognize that there can be many different “truths.”****
In most cases your perspective is neither right nor wrong, it is simply what your particular vantage point allows you to offer. Rather than working with the assumption that you have nothing to offer, or that you hold the only perspective of value, trust that each person may be the only one who can offer their particular “truth.” If you leave your perspective unsaid, or drown out someone else’s voice, you will have short-circuited the process that creates understanding, buy-in, and higher levels of creative thinking. When it is necessary to supportively confront someone you can use “I” messages to take responsibility for your own thoughts, feelings, and actions. (A frequently used formula for “I” messages includes the following four parts: 1) I think / feel…2) when you…3) because…4) I want / need…). Avoid drawing unnecessary lines in the sand, or “making someone wrong” just because you have different perspectives.

****Take your words directly to the person who needs to hear them.****
Don’t count on people to read your mind or assume that they “should” already understand your perspective. Regardless of whether you’re frustrated with investors, your boss, colleagues, staff, customers, or someone on the home front, grumbling with people who aren’t in a position to effect change will only leave you feeling more powerless and/or resentful. Rather than blaming them for your unwillingness to express yourself, find a way to language and deliver your message in a timely and effective fashion to the person or people who need to hear it. Use a third party as a sounding board if intense emotions or previous attempts at communication have you wanting to skip the issue altogether. (Ensure that your goal in talking with this neutral party is to bolster your ability for communicating directly and not simply to gain an ally!)

****Remember that “telling your truth” also involves listening.****
Nothing makes it easier for someone to hear what we have to offer than our own willingness to really listen—and sometimes doing so first allows the other person to clear out their own systems and have space to consider what we most want them to hear. More than just keeping your mouth shut and impatiently tapping your foot, genuine listening involves making a real effort to understand the other’s perspective. Ask clarifying questions or paraphrase to communicate back to the speaker your understanding of what’s been said.

****Use levity, humor, sincere praise and acknowledgment when appropriate.****
When we let things stay unnecessarily serious, intense, or oppositional people grow tense and impatient. Be the bearer of light in your organization—be willing to deal honestly, openly, and directly with the issues that need to be discussed, yet take the opportunity to appreciate life and each other at every opportunity!

for a free subscription to Vantage Point, an E-zine for trailblazers in lfe and business, go to www.highest-vision.com.

About the Author

Susan J. Schutz founded Highest Vision in 1999 as a reflection of her deep conviction that professionals can be attentive to their “bottom lines” while also creating lives worth living and businesses that contribute to the good of all.

For a free subscription to Vantage Point, Susan's bimonthly E-zine for trailblazers in life and business, go to www.highest-vision.com.


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