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The Fearless Heart


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by Miki Kashtan

When I talk with people about Nonviolent Communication and about empathy and authenticity, I often hear skepticism in the form of “Yes, but what about_______.” Frequent candidates for filling in the blank are teenagers that don’t respond to anything; Hitler; very angry people; and workplace situations. It seems many of us are habituated to thinking that empathy and authenticity belong only in some contexts and not others. Today I want to look at the workplace context, because so many of us are at work more of our awake time than anywhere else.

Can Connection and Effectiveness Coexist?
On the surface, it appears that the time it would take to reach mutual understanding and collaboration would detract from task-oriented focus, thus taking away from productivity and efficient decision-making. On closer look, I see at least three ways in which connection could enhance effectiveness. First, people who are heard and understood, have more goodwill to contribute. Second, people who are often operating within the fear and discomfort arising from conflict and mistrust literally have less of themselves available to produce. Lastly, when decisions and agreements are based on true connection and mutual understanding, such that “yes” is really a “yes,” people are much less likely to back out of what they said they would do.

How Can We Connect without Appearing “Touchy-Feely” to Others? 
Rachel Naomi Remen tells in Kitchen Table Wisdom of two surgeons from the same department who were seeing her for therapy. Each of them said that he was the only one in the department who cared about patients, and that everyone else was there for the money, while she knew at least one other person in the department who also cared about patients and just didn’t show it. This story has stayed with me, because it helps me remember that no matter what the surface presentation is, everyone has a heart like mine underneath it. If I want to connect, to be present empathically and to show up authentically, whether in a workplace or anywhere else, I want to reach out to others in a way that is most comfortable for them. How can you do that?

For starters, be clear on the purpose of your reaching out. In particular, consider what amount of connection is needed to achieve the purpose at hand. More often than not, in my experience, people balk at the language of feelings and needs when the speaker is trying to connect without such clarity. In such instances often the speaker, eager and excited about using their newly acquired skills of empathy, ends up inviting more connection and especially more vulnerability than the culture of the workplace supports. In almost every situation it may be possible to find a way to express to others your understanding of what’s important to them without invoking language that’s challenging for them. For example, the act of pausing to reflect in and of itself supports relief of tension without requiring going into any depth of feelings. 

Similarly, when choosing to express with more authenticity, you have a wide range of choices about what to say and how to say it. For myself, when I manage to be as conscious as I would like, I tend to focus my expression on those aspects of my experience that point to shared purpose with whomever I am speaking with. For example, if I want to say “no” to someone who asks me for something, I make a point of saying (if it’s true, of course) how much I want to support them and why it doesn’t work for me to do what they want. This is a way of tending to relationships. Whether in the workplace or anywhere else, everyone wants to know that they matter, and you can prioritize conveying that with sufficient clarity.

In short, put your empathy and your authenticity in the service of finding common ground and mutual understanding. My own choice of what I focus on is not random. To the best of my ability, I strategically offer transparency, authenticity, and empathic presence that are likely to support those goals. More often than not, this focus results in solutions that are likely to work for everyone involved.

Bringing Our Authenticity into the Workplace
In the workplace, as in the home and elsewhere, many people forget about including themselves when it comes to connection. I have already written about how leaving ourselves out can lead to resentment. How does this apply in the workplace? 

Including yourself means bringing your opinions and visions when you have them, even when there may be disagreement. It also means being willing to say no when you are being asked for something that will not work for you. In addition, if you really want to bring yourself fully into the picture, you will need to learn to ask for what you want.

Discussing Disagreements
Many people are used to hiding their opinions when they are not aligned with the general flow of things. Others argue for them forcefully, to the point of expressing disrespect for others’ opinions. Rarely have I seen the capacity to express divergent opinions and lead a productive discussion about them. What can help?

As an example (loosely based on a real situation I am now working with in a company I am supporting), suppose a new person comes into your department whom you completely dislike and don’t think is a fit for the position. Maybe everyone else in the department is happy with the hire, and one co-worker expresses relief that now you have extra support. What do you do? You could pretend to agree when you don’t. For most people, that creates a level of distance and alienation which can destroy goodwill. You can express your different opinion like this: “I can’t believe you appreciate this new person. He/she is just a lump, totally inept. I don’t know why he/she was hired.” (Remember – this is based on a true story…) You are likely to lose your co-worker’s trust, and in some situations and workplaces word will get around and you may lose your job. When given these two alternatives, most people choose the former, which in part explains why so many of us are unhappy going to work. 

A third alternative does exist, though. You can express your disagreement by taking ownership of your response instead of making it sound like a fact with which anyone would have to agree. You could say, for example: “I wish I shared your opinion. I am actually quite concerned. I am worried I and others may not be able to get our work done as efficiently. Do you want to hear more?” In addition to recognizing that this is your opinion and not “the Truth,” you are also expressing what’s under your opinion by linking it to a shared goal or value, in this case efficiency. Lastly, you are also expressing openness to dialogue. During the dialogue you can continue to bring empathic listening and caring authenticity to the conversation. Make your goal be mutual understanding rather than agreement. This is not about “agree to disagree.” When you work towards mutual understanding you will often be surprised by how much you can learn and change along the way.

Saying “No” Respectfully
Whenever anyone makes a request of you, whether at work or elsewhere, the request is made on two levels. One is the content: the person making the request wants something to happen, and s/he has chosen you as the strategy of choice. The second level is about the quality of relationship between you. We all want to know that we matter. That includes everyone who makes a request of you, including your boss. 

What this means is that if you are going to say no to someone, it’s vitally important that you express care even as you say no. That means developing your inner muscles so that you can care. And then finding ways of expressing the care. How? 

You start by explicitly expressing an understanding of and interest in how what’s being asked of you is important to this other person and/or to the organization. You follow by stating clearly what’s keeping you from saying yes, and you finish by working together with the other person to find alternate strategies to address the underlying need. 

Many people find it challenging, almost impossible, to imagine asking for what they want in their workplace. This is especially true if they have little access to formal power within the organization. I plan to come back to the topic of power, including within organizations, in the near future. For now, I want to focus on fundamental principles that can help you in lining up resources for yourself in the workplace regardless of where you are in the organization. 

Make the “Why” Clear and Relevant
By and large, the kind of requests we make in the workplace are related to our being able to work well within the environment in which we find ourselves. This will likely be either a direct connection (e.g. wanting to buy a piece of software that would make my work more effective) or an indirect connection (e.g. I want to sit ina different office where I am not so agitated about the conversations around me, which would help me feel better and hence focus and be productive). 

A clear and simple principle follows from this clarity. Connecting our requests to organizational goals, including your ability to do your job is likely to increase the chances of someone saying “yes” to your request. It’s easier to hear a request when its underlying purpose is clear and connected to goals that are important to the person receiving these requests. This is especially true if the person to whom you are directing the request is in a position of authority in relation to you. If the link is not obvious, make it explicit. 

Openness to “No”
Before you make a request, consider what happens if the other person say no. Even if something is deeply important to you, the essential characteristic of a request rather than a demand points precisely to the willingness, however reluctantly, to hear a no and look for other ways to get your needs met, either with this person or with others. This is critical even if you don’t have the power to “make” the other person give you what you want because you can create consequences for a “no.” Your openness to different possible outcomes results in more spaciousness for the other person. All of us, as far as I can tell, don’t like to have no options. If the other person has a clear option to say “no,” the option of saying “yes” becomes more appealing. 

If you are not open to a “no,” take a moment to consider if you can let go enough to have it be a request. Sometimes bringing a bit of consciousness, and relaxing into the needs you are trying to meet with your requests, can be enough to create openness. 

If you discover that you don’t have any openness to a “no,” then you are not really making a request. In that case, be honest about it, and make it clear that this is a demand, not a request. This is especially true if you are in a position to create consequences for a “no.” Most people find it very discouraging to have someone make a request and then discover when they try to say “no,” that it was a disguised demand. Remember, what makes for a request and not a demand is not how you ask. It’s only how you respond to a “no.”

Thresholds for Saying “No”
Most of the time we will be somewhere between complete openness to a “no” and being completely locked on a particular outcome. Some things are more or less important to us. How to work with that?

The first step is honesty with yourself. How important your request is for you? If what you want is not so important, make it easy for the person to say “no.” Most people find it difficult to say “no,” and you might get a “yes” that isn’t really a “yes.” To minimize this risk, you can explicitly make it easy for the person to say “no,” and use your words to create a very low threshold for them to cross. For example: “I have an idea about how we can make this work more efficiently, and I only want you to do this if you can see clearly that it will benefit you, too. Would you tell me if you have even minor concerns about participating?”

Conversely, there are times when what you want is really important to you and you may be more willing to pay the price in the other person’s goodwill. You are only open to a “no” if it’s a hardship for the other person. In that case, make it clear to the person you are asking. For example, you could say: “This is really important to me, because I don’t know how to get my tasks done without this. I would like you to do this for me even if it’s a stretch for you. Are you open to that?”

Wherever you put the threshold, and however you word your request, the biggest challenge is working out the differences if what you want doesn’t work for the other person. This brings us to another topic for another day: how to resolve conflicts within the workplace.

Miki Kashtan is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication. She is inspired by the role of visionary leadership in shaping a livable future, and works toward that vision by sharing the principles and practices of Nonviolent Communication through mediation, meeting facilitation, consulting, and training for organizations and for committed individuals.She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from UC Berkeley and her articles have appeared in Tikkun magazine, Waging Nonviolence,  Shareable, and elsewhere. The Fearless Heart is crossposted to Tikkun Daily and Psychology Today.