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  Organization Improvement: Cooperative Communication

The workplace is a complicated place. Imagine a spider web of people, managers, supervisors and staff members who need to work together, interacting in various ways to fulfill the organization's mandate. Disagreements and conflict are bound to occur; between staff members, between staff and management, and between clients and members of your organization.

As a result of working with thousands of government employees to help them acquire and use defusing hostility skills, we have concluded that a good amount of bad feelings, organizational problems, destructive conflict and inefficiency result from a lack of skill in the WAY that people communicate with each other. This isn't that surprising if we consider that our society tends to glorify the confrontational, John Wayne type heroes. And, that as children learn language, they tend to learn confrontational, negative language before they learn how to get along with others.

Cooperative communication or the skills needed to get along in the workplace, or, for that matter, anywhere else, are in relatively short supply, because we simply don't teach them to children or adults. So we get unnecessary conflict and friction. We get arguments that are more oriented towards winning than solving problems, and we get the so-called personality conflict, a convenient phrase that allows everyone to avoid responsibility for interpersonal problems. We get teams that don't work well because they lack the skills. We get meetings where the majority of time is wasted because people don't interact effectively. We get clashes with clients and customers that occur as a result of both parties moving into confrontational ways of interacting.

We've moved forward in defining the elements of cooperative communication so that they can be taught to people. But what is cooperative communication?

What Is Cooperative Communication

Some ways of communicating increase friction and anger. Other ways of communication tend to cause people to work WITH us, and not against us. While it is clear that blatant accusations, name-calling and personal attacks are confrontational (the opposite of cooperative), there are many more subtle ways to ruin a communication. To illustrate some of the techniques of cooperative communication, let's take a look at the following sentences:

"You never finish the work on time."

"It seems like you are having some difficulty with the timelines. What can I do to help?"

Which of these phrases do you think is more likely to elicit a productive dialogue? Clearly the first at least "sounds" antagonistic", while the second doesn't. Another example: "If you had bothered to read the report, you would know...."

It might be that the report wasn't clear on those points. Would you like me to explain?

What are the cooperative rules here? In our first set of examples, the initial statement uses an absolute word "never", and as a result tends to cause the other person to argue. In addition the phrase sounds blaming. The replacement phrase lacks those confrontational characteristics, uses a qualifier "seems", and offers to work together. In the second phrase set, the key word is "bothered", which suggests that the person is lazy, or uncaring, and that is what will be heard. It also is a blaming statement. In the replacement phrase, we introduce another qualifier "might", followed by an offer to solve the problem.

In both phrase sets, the first phrases are likely to create argument and personalized conflict while the replacement phrases are more likely to result in real problem solving.
There are a number of other aspects of cooperative communication, far too many to outline in a single article. However, cooperative communication involves the use of techniques that are designed to prevent destructive conflict, enhance workplace morale, and save considerable time and energy.

How Do People Learn Cooperative Communication?

Our estimates are that between 5-10% of people consistently communicate in cooperative ways, although that estimate is certainly not scientific. Minorities of people acquire these skills through experience, but unfortunately, experience is a slow, unreliable teacher. As a result we have decided to offer our Building Bridges series of seminars. At present there are two separate components to the process. The first seminar "Communicating Cooperatively in the Workplace", provides the basic components of cooperative communication, and highlights the advantages of using those components. The second seminar is entitled "Thorny Workplace Communication Problems" is a case-study based approach that allows participants to work through real communication situations, to determine how they can apply cooperative communication to them.

The first seminar can be done stand-alone, while the second requires the first as a pre-requisite. Since we believe that seminars should be custom-designed, we will not be including an outline of content, since content will vary considerably from workplace to workplace. If your workplace problems centre on meetings, then the content would differ from a workplace that had general team-based issues. Or, if your major concern is written communication, the content would be different than if you are primarily concerned with verbal communication. What we can tell you now is that these seminars will be much different than the standard communication courses on the market, and avoid many of the tired, ineffective old saws that are often included in basic communication seminars.

If you would like more information about cooperative communication elements you can order our help card on the subject (Communicating Cooperatively in the Workplace) by using the order form included in this newsletter. Whether you are a manager or staff member, you will find that learning and using cooperative communication techniques can reduce the amount of destructive conflict around you, save valuable time, increase team effectiveness, and reduce supervisory/ management time dealing with conflict that is a result of confrontational communication approaches.

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