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The Importance of Communication Skills in Almost Any Job
Conflict is something that can’t be avoided no matter how hard we try. It’s inevitable because people are individuals with different views, feelings, experiences, and ways of perceiving things. And so the object is not to eliminate conflict, but to try to work with conflict so that it has a positive outcome, such as bringing people closer, or creating new ideas, new possibilities.
As we’re working with the individual, we’re seeing a person who has difficulty with communication and conflict. Those difficulties are a major part of the life patterns that often come from a dysfunction family of origin, from significant unresolved conflict in the parental relationships, or from significant unresolved losses. He may be overly passive or overly aggressive, or a combination of those behaviours. His ways of relating are unintentional, unconscious compulsions, and often he doesn’t know a healthy alternative to reacting out of emotion or habit.
We’re going to be assessing the client in terms of five communication styles: passive, assertive, aggressive, passively aggressive, and destructive.
The passive style tries to avoid a conflict. He is very agreeable. A sense of what he feels is more subtle. You may not really know what he feels. He is almost a non-person. You don’t really get to know him. He may be a doormat. He may be agreeable or apologize prematurely. He’ll avoid conflict at all cost. He keeps things nice. He won’t express his own true feelings. He’ll have a “nice” front with a capital N-I-C-E etched on his forehead. He may not be able to make eye contact very well. His body language will be demonstrated by maybe slouching in the seat, not being able to sit up straight and look a person in the eye.
The person who has a passive style is behaving as if he doesn’t believe that he has equal worth to others. He behaves as if he’s not entitled to his own feelings and views and isn’t entitled to be treated with respect. If you call him names or put him down, he won’t stand up for his right to be treated with respect. He may just put his head down, or tuck his tail between his legs, so to speak. He may even agree with the person who labels him, or calls him names. He may also put himself down, call himself stupid.
Aggressive style may be defined as pushy, loud, dominating, inconsiderate. He wants what he wants and he may even order you to get it for him or do it for him. He may be obnoxious in a demanding, ordering way.
So he may accuse and blame other people, point the finger. The aggressive individual behaves as if he alone has worth, and you don’t. He behaves as if he alone is to be treated with respect, but he’ll treat you with disrespect. He’ll behave as if only he is entitled to his feelings and views. So he’ll dominate the time. He’ll interrupt you if you are talking or he just won’t leave you any room for your point of view. He’ll insist that he’s right and you’re wrong.
Now deep down the aggressive individual is very insecure and afraid, and has low self worth. He has very low ego strength. If he had a stronger sense of himself, he wouldn’t have to be so pushy.
Would I be correct in saying that sort of person is often labeled as egotistical? An aggressive person is often egotistical. In reality his ego is very weak. The bully is the classic example.
A variation on aggressive style is passively aggressive style, which is demonstrated by the indirect or passive expression of hostility. When protesters lie down in front of whatever they’re protesting, or refuse to move, is that passive aggression? Passive resistance is passive aggression. When I was in the army I was told to scrape the wax off the floor and to strip the floor in the hallway. Well, I was in there against my choice. I was drafted, and I was a conscientious objector, so when I was given that task, I deliberately worked on one square inch for the whole day. I accepted the task, but not gladly. That was passive aggressive behaviour. I resented being forced into the army and being given those tasks.
Deliberately burning the toast at breakfast is another example. Sabotaging, undermining, talking about people behind their backs are all passive aggressive behaviours. So these people don’t really speak their feelings directly. They may use a punitive silence, or refuse to speak to somebody for a long period of time.
The cold shoulder is passive aggressive, and so is walking away from a person when he is talking, or yawning in your face, things like that.
Destructive style is characterized by hitting, throwing, name-calling, threats, yelling and screaming. It includes any behaviour that is destructive of property, of self-esteem, of the sense of safety, or physically of a person’s body. Name-calling is a good example, and so is using judgmental terms to demean a person. Sarcastic put downs are destructive because they imply a label of stupidity, ignorance, or something like that: “Where were you when they passed out the brains?”
This style generally results from very dysfunctional homes where there is physical or mental violence, sexual abuse, lack of parental discipline and permissiveness. It may result from that style being exhibited or demonstrated in the home. You may find all these styles prominently displayed in a dysfunctional home except for assertive style.
Assertive style is being able to be clear, direct, brief, and non-judgmental. The assertive individual behaves as if he believes everyone is entitled to his feelings and views. “You’re entitled to your view, I’m entitled to my view,” and therefore he is brief. He’ll state his case but he’ll want to know what your point is too; he’ll give you equal time. He’ll be clear about his feelings. He’ll use the first person “I” in making personal statements of his own feelings and views using feeling words: “I feel annoyed,” “I feel sad,” “I feel afraid when you do this.” And when he describes your behaviour he’s not going to use judgmental terms. He’s just going to give a non-judgmental description of your observable behaviour: “You don’t take accurate phone messages…” not “You’re so inconsiderate…”
ORIGINS OF COMMUNICATION STYLES
As we look at the development of these styles, we can see that some of the unhealthy behaviours, the destructive style and others, are modeled on what was experienced in the family of origin, or and some are a reaction against experiences in the family of origin.
If in the family of origin there is a lot of violence, a person may decide that anger is no good because anger is only destructive, so he’ll develop a passive style to keep his anger in. But then he may have explosive outbursts at times because if he keeps his anger in about things, the tension may build up to the point where he can’t take it any longer, and then he just spews out all kinds of name-calling or other destructive behaviours. And then that only proves to him that anger is no good so he stuffs it all again and goes through a cycle of unhealthy suppression and aggression.
If a person grows up with two passive parents who don’t externalize anger, and then he finds a partner who’s very aggressive, what is he going to do with that? What’s that going to be like for him? He’ll feel harassed, lack a sense of control.
He won’t know what to do with that because when he was growing up he didn’t see anybody deal with conflict in any destructive way. He didn’t see his parents dealing with issues openly. He experienced them being silent or avoiding conflict, and so he would be at a loss. He wouldn’t have the skills or the ability to cope with strong anger coming out. That’s the only way the child learned to deal with difficult issues. In a home where that was the norm and voices were never raised, a person may leave the room when an argument breaks out. He would be very uncomfortable with that and go to great extremes to avoid even being exposed to conflict as an observer. The person growing up got the clear message that anger is no good.
In a home of both passive and aggressive parents one may be capable of both passive and aggressive styles. One may be the doormat and sometimes the bully.
So as we’re working with the client, we want to try to understand the story behind her style, to try to help her understand it and gain insight into it, and then we want to help her develop a broader repertoire of styles and skills for communicating and dealing with conflict.
SUMMARY OF HEALTHY SKILLS
There are three primary skills that we want to pass onto the client.
1. The first is to help her express her feelings and views in a more assertive way.
2. Then we want to help her to listen to the feelings and views of the other person because even the passive individual doesn’t necessarily do that very well. Her thoughts may be wandering off while someone is talking to her.
3. Thirdly, we need to pass along problem solving skills to the client so she can learn how to reach an agreement with another person without taking power or controlling, because the aggressive style and the passive style are both very controlling and powerful styles.
The passive individual is very powerful in his use of silence and other passive aggressive behaviours. And the aggressive person tends to be very powerful by demanding, ordering, and intimidating people. If we want to help our clients give up power and move beyond power in relationships, we need to help them learn new healthy skills.
ASSERTING ISSUES PAST AND PRESENT
Let’s first take a look at expressing feelings and views, both past and present. We really want our client to learn to express himself fully about issues in relationships past and present, throughout his lives. We talked about unfinished business when we were doing grief counseling. The same applies to communication styles and skills.
And so as we pass along assertive skills, one of the things we are going to do is introduce the three part assertive statement, which is: “I feel ________, when you ________, because ________.” In the first blank, we put in a feeling word: annoyed, sad, furious, venomous, perturbed, irritated. Choose a word that matches the level of the feeling that the person has. In the “when you” blank the person provides a non-judgmental description of observable behaviour of the other person. In the “because” blank he clarifies the effect on his life of the other person’s behaviour.
Here are some examples:
“I feel frustrated when you don’t put gas in the tank and you leave it on empty because then I have to stop by the gas station and fill the tank, and then I’m late for work.”
“I feel really cheated when you don’t follow through on the tasks we agreed that you would do because then I’m left with more work.”
“I feel frustrated when you don’t phone to let me know you are going to be late because then I lose valuable time waiting.”
Say to your client: “I’d like you to form a statement using this format (above). And I’d like for you to think of a relationship in which you had some issue, minor or major, past or present, which you can make a statement about.” It could be in relation to a loss of parental caring and closeness, or unresolved conflict with a parent. Or it could be something that happened with an acquaintance very recently, or with a friend over a relatively minor issue.
Do you use this for expressing positive feelings? You can use the same format. That would be to reinforce the desired behaviour. This enhances closeness, and I think that’s a very important point that you’re making because people sometimes have difficulty giving and receiving compliments and encouragement.
Example: “I feel empty when you don’t phone because I worry.”
Put “worry” up in that first blank. “I feel empty and worried when you don’t phone.” Can you think of a practical effect on your life? What’s a practical effect when she doesn’t phone? What do you do with your time? Are you able to plan your time? Does it affect your planning or organizing? You waste time thinking about what may have happened to her and you can’t get on with other tasks.
Example: “I feel hurt and disrespected when you don’t listen to me because then I don’t get to finish what I have to say.” The term “disrespected” is a judgmental term. Do you feel hurt angry? Hurt frustrated? Hurt annoyed? What kind of hurt? Help the client with more specific feeling words.
Example: “I feel ripped off when you weren’t there for me because I feel we could have done so much more as father and son.” The word “feel” is used the second time to mean think, or believe rather than an emotion. Just leave out the second “feel” word.
Example: To his son the client says, “I feel anger when you get out of bed because I don’t get as much time to be alone with Mom.” This client may miss his own mother and resents his son taking away the mothering his wife provides; sounds unhealthy. The client needs to tone down the anger word or leave the feel blank out altogether as it may be too powerful for a child to hear.
Example: “I feel very uncomfortable when you ask me a question because I don’t always have an answer.” Uncomfortable what? Uncomfortable anxious? Uncomfortable frustrated? It’s easier to avoid a feeling word by using a vague general word, and then one ends up not being as direct and clear as one could be.
Example: “I feel upset when you go shopping and you don’t buy the foods I want because my health is very important to me.” Upset what? Upset angry? Upset anxious? How does it actually affect your health? Say maybe, “Because I can’t get the nutrition I need to be healthy.”
An important principle in giving assertive negative feedback is to create safety for yourself and the other party by getting permission from him to offer feedback. This can be done simply by saying, “Do you mind if I raise an issue that is bothering me?” or, “Can I tell you something I fell annoyed about?” or, “Do you mind if I give you some negative feedback?” This allows the receiving party to have some say or control, and it is respectful of his sensitivity to receiving criticism.
THE PROTECTION BLOCK
What do you imagine the passive person struggles with when he attempts to become assertive? What gets in the way? He struggles with fear and guilt. The fear is of hurting or being hurt, of saying something that’s going to hurt the other person, or of experiencing a negative reaction. When the feared thing happens, he feels guilty about not having prevented it from happening. The end result is the protection block.
The passive individual prefers to avoid stating the issue clearly. He may allude to it, probably in vague and general ways. What the client needs to understand is that passivity, or any one of the other styles of communicating, may be appropriate in a given situation.
The bottom line is to choose the style as a conscious, deliberate decision, rather than as an impulsive reaction. For instance, if I’m talking with a policeman or an employer, I’ll usually choose to be passive or possibly even apologetic. As a counselor you need to restrict your personal style somewhat. I wonder if you’ve ever expressed anger to a client? Not only do we not say, “I love you,” to a client or, “I care about you,” we also don’t express anger to a client.
I wouldn’t express any emotion toward a client. I wouldn’t tell a client that I’m angry or frustrated with him, even in a low tone of voice, because the statements of a counselor are powerful. Now, although I wouldn’t express anger or frustration, there may be times when I choose to be aggressive. Sometimes I will interrupt a client by saying something like, “Let’s see if I understand what you’re saying,” even though it’s aggressive behaviour to do that.
I will raise my voice with a client, as a way of joining or taking sides with him as he’s talking about his anger towards somebody else. “You have every right to feel that. Say more about that.” I’ll do it as a way of encouraging him to raise his voice and bring out his anger.
THE REFLECTIVE STATEMENT
The next essential communication skill is the reflective statement. It’s easy to remember it, and have the client remember it, as the opposite of the assertive statement.
The assertive statement is: “I feel _______ when you _______ because_______.” The reflective statement is, “So you feel _____ when I ______ because________.” And then we just add a perception check at the end: “Is that what you’re feeling?” or, “Is that what you’re saying?” or, “Do I understand you?”
Essentially, the reflective statement reflects feeling and meaning. When we make a reflective statement, and when our client does, we may want to point out to him that it’s better to overstate than to understate the person who is speaking. In other words, when we make a reflection, it’s better to reflect just a little bit more than what the speaker has said. You may even reflect the unspoken implication of what the speaker has said.
Sometimes, the speaker does not say what the practical effect on his life is, he’ll only point out my behaviour. In that case, when I make a reflection, I’m going to reflect how my behaviour has affected his life, even if he hasn’t stated it. That’s to help him feel fully understood.
If I understate his case in my reflection, what’s going to be his reaction? He’ll think you didn’t quite understand, so he may feel alone or very frustrated. He may increase his own anger or resentment, whereas if I overstate and if I’m sincere and not sarcastic in my reflection, he is going to feel very supported. His resentment or hostility will tend to diminish.
The common denominator of all conflict reducing behaviour is to be open to the feelings and views of the other person. But this kind of openness and willingness to reflect the hostile party requires a thick skin because the reflecting party needs to set aside his own feelings and views as long as the other party remains very hostile, directing criticism toward the reflector. Another term for this is “ego death,” the sense of deprivation and giving up self-defense to focus on the needs and feelings of the critical party.
In a conflict, it’s important to exchange a series of reflective statements. Use reflections to clarify the issues to be resolved, and if the other person doesn’t know about reflective listening, and most times he won’t, you can still elicit a reflection, so that you can feel understood. You can do this by saying, “Let me know what you think you heard me say, because until I know that you understood what I’ve said, I don’t think we can go any further with this. I have to know that you understand my point of view.”
What if the person reacts with, “Do you think I’m stupid, that I didn’t hear you?” I’d say, “I’m not saying you’re stupid, what I’m saying is that I need to know that you understand what I’m saying. I need to know that you understand me. So, can you tell me? I think you do understand, and you can understand, I just need to know that you understand. I need to hear it. And I need to understand your point of view. I need to let you know that I understand it and why I understand. Because unless our issues are clear to each other, then we can’t begin to problem-solve.” This is the first step to resolving conflict.
FIGHTING BEHAVIOUR DEFINED
A conflict may degrade into a fight. The definition of a fight is when one person is unwilling to listen to the point of view of the other. And it only takes one person who is unwilling to listen to the point of view of the other to have a fight. It could be a silent fight or a verbal fight, I could use a wall of words to keep from listening to you or I could use a wall of silence.
It’s very important for fighting behaviour to be recognized early on, and there are two things you can do to deal with it. The first is to keep the fight fair. As long as there are no threats, or name calling, or put-downs, it’s within fair limits.
The second way to deal with fighting is to recognize that as much as one may want to resolve the issue, one may be too emotionally wound up to begin to be reasonable at all. He’s too upset. He may be overly verbal and dominating or overly silent and withdrawn or leave the room, and the last behaviour creates fear and unsafety not knowing when the person will return.
At those times when you are too upset, it’s very important to say, “I can’t talk about this now, but I’ll talk about it this evening or when I feel I’m ready to talk about it.” And if it’s the other person who is refusing to talk, or after that period of distance, it’s important to come back to the other party and say, “I’m ready to talk about this if you are.” And at that time, when the emotions have subsided, you can sit down and make assertive or reflective statements.
Clarify the issues and then move it to the next step, which is to say, “What are we going to do?” That’s the question we must ask in order to move to the problem-solving phase, which is essential to the resolution of the conflict. You have to get around to saying, “What are we going to do about our issue (or issues, about our issue, about my issue)?”
At that point you can begin to problem solve. If you use a highly structured method of problem-solving, you may get a pencil and paper and make a list of issues, your issues and my issues, and prioritize them. “I’ll circle my most important issue, and you’ll circle yours. We’ll flip a coin to see whose issue gets dealt with first.” Take that issue and start brainstorming solutions.
This is a highly structured problem-solving process. Structure is the key to maintaining safety in conflict, especially if the conflict is emotionally intense and there are multiple, confusing issues to be dealt with. I believe it’s important to use a written process. You also need to give the feelings time to settle, because when people try to resolve things too early, they get bogged down and begin to react emotionally again to things that are said.
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