Ways to communicate


These notes describe some skills that can be learnt and practised – different ways to speak that may be useful in working in and running a coop.

Please note that these ways of speaking are different from those that are habitually used by many people. There is absolutely no compulsion to try these new ways to speak. They may be of no use to you, and you may not wish to use them.

That said, if people can firstly notice existing patterns, and then try to change them, this can help.

The three different ways are:

1. Using I-statements or I-messages

This idea was developed by Thomas Gordon many years ago. In its simplest form, the idea is to say “I”, instead of “you” or impersonal statements about using “is”.

For example, “I feel sad” or “I feel happy” is a ‘single part I-statement’..

Building on this, there are many more complicated variants. For example, I could say, “When I think of my friend Stan, I feel happy”. Or “When I am interrupted, I lose my concentration”.

I-statements come from individuals; avoid “I echo x” or “I agree with y”.

2. Observations, thoughts, feelings And needs/wants

Another useful idea is to try to separate out our Observations, Thoughts, Feelings And Needs/Wants. This is an idea that is in the work of, for example, MArshall Rosenberg (who gave us NVC - Non-Violent Communication) and, more recently, Gervase Bushe who describes this model as the ‘experience cube’.

An easy way to remember these is to adopt the acronym FONT/OFTN. Combined with an I-statement, I might say “When I see the latest figures, I feel a bit anxious.”

This includes an Observation and a Feeling.

An Observation is something I see or hear or sense. So, for example, “When you slammed the door...” is not a simple observation. It is an observation combined with a judgement. Perhaps you heard the noise of the door shutting, and it seemed loud to you, and you felt annoyed, and you decided it had been ‘slammed’.

Another example might be “When you flew off the handle just now” or “When you stormed out of the room”. It is unlikely this is what was actually seen or heard! People can’t really fly, nor can they actually ‘storm’.

A better observation might be “When I heard you say XXX…” or “When you left the room…”. Taking the emotions and judgements out of observations helps because there is then something we can agree on. “When you slammed the door.. ” is as likely to lead to the rejoinder “I didn't!” as anything else.

A Feeling is a bodily sensation of some kind. It is easy to muddle thoughts and feelings. In fact, often people will say “I feel like we should go to a Chinese restaurant” or “I feel that it is wrong that people are discriminated against”.

These are not feelings. These words - “I feel like” or “I feel that” - describe thoughts. A feeling is a bodily sensation, and one way to recognise a feeling is to check if it falls into one of these five categories:

There are perhaps thousands of feelings but they tend to fall into one of these categories. This is Gervase Bush’s categorisation. There are many others available on the internet.

The other way to determine if a feeling is a feeling is if you can describe the physical sensations that go with it. For example, you might feel hot, or tense, or some other sensation in some part of your body.

A Thought is - well, a thought. Thoughts are, oddly, much harder to describe. Your thoughts seem to be in your ‘mind’ rather than physical, bodily sensations.

Of course, there are many kinds of thoughts - thoughts that are about the past (memories) and thoughts about the future (dreams/fantasies). There are negative thoughts, and positive thoughts. You can think things about yourself and other people; about the broader situation and what is happening right now, right in front of you.

Finally, there are Needs and Wants. Needs and wants include those described in Maslow’s famous ‘pyramid’ - physiological needs for food or water; safety and belonging needs, like shelter and companionship. We all have needs for recognition, achievement and desires of many kinds.

Bringing all four together

So there we have it: four different types of thing to speak about. Four different types that are often muddled up. If our goal is to communicate something clearly, then it is worthwhile trying to clarify what we are trying to say, before we accuse the listener of not understanding us.

So to use all four of these, you might say “When I see the latest figures, I think that there may be a problem coming up, and I feel a bit anxious, because I need security”.

Recognising our thoughts as thoughts can be particularly useful. Knowing that our feelings are often triggered by our thoughts, gives us the freedom to consider whether we believe the thought (or not).

For example, the thought “that there may be a problem coming up” is a prediction about the future. So although it is worth considering, it may not be the only truth. Of course, no one can predict the future, so maybe that introduces a little doubt? And one way to explore this for yourself is to consider what thoughts other people might have - somebody might think “there may not be a problem coming up - everything will be fine” under exactly the same circumstances!

With a different thought, we may have a different feeling, depending on how we tend to react to our thoughts.

Similarly, recognising our Needs and Wants can also be very useful. It is sometimes quite unusual in common conversation for people to say what they need or want. More often it is left to the listener to guess.

In addition, if we are ourselves able to see how a Need or a Want is related to what we are thinking and feeling it may have less power over us.

An example is “Let’s go into this restaurant”. There is no explicit need in that sentence.

An alternative would be “Let’s go into this restaurant, because I am hungry (a need)”.

That form raises the possibility that I might defer my need to eat because other needs might be more important (such as to be companionable by finding a restaurant that my friends want to go to). So another alternative would be “Let’s go into this restaurant. I want to be friendly. But I am also hungry.” That form allows someone to say something to me such as: “I understand you are hungry. And you also want to be friendly. Which is more important to you - to eat right now, to assuage your hunger, or be companionable - and find somewhere that suits all of us?”

This example illustrates how being clearer about what we need might make it easier for us - and our friends and colleagues - to get those needs met.

By the way the form “I need you to feed the cat” is not really a need in the way I am speaking about them. It is an order.

A better way of saying this might be “When I see the cat has no food (observation), I feel scared (feeling) because I think about her getting ill (a thought), and I need my pets to be safe and healthy (a need). Would you please feed her next time I am out?”

The last part is a request. It is often easier to make requests when we know what we think, feel and need.

An alternative to making a request is to start an enquiry. For example, I might add “Do you also worry about the cat going hungry?”

To which the answer might be “No, not at all - our cat eats at the neighbour’s house when we don't feed it”.

3. Paraphrasing and summarising

Communicating takes two people at least - a speaker and a listener. Both have some responsibility for ensuring that communication takes place.

Paraphrasing and summarising is a great way to make sure we are really listening to someone. This technique is as old as the hills - and appears, for example, in some indiginous people’s ways of speaking.

Paraphrasing and summarising is not the same as parroting back what someone said. It is also not a competition – the aim is not to demonstrate how good our memory is. The aim is to really hear what the other person is trying to communicate.

If we listen carefully, and ask questions appropriately, it may be possible to get a fuller understanding of the meaning - and meaning often includes one or more feelings. When we hear and connect with what someone else says then we have usually connected with their feelings about it too, and appreciated their needs. We all have feelings and needs in common.

Recognising what another person says doesn't mean we have to say the same words out loud. There is now some evidence from neuroscience that our 'mirror’ neurons allow us to experience what another person experiences. Perhaps this is how feelings can be 'received’ without words?

We may share feelings and needs, and be able to connect over them. But our personal perceptions of situations are almost always different from those of other people - because we are literally in a different position, and our personal histories affect our conscious and unconscious biases and thus what we see and hear. So our observations and thoughts may be quite different from other people's.

4. Time

Finally, another really useful way to communicate is to try to be clear about time. When are we talking about?

Often we are unclear whether we are talking about the future, or the past. Making this clearer can be very helpful. Kurt Lewin’s time travelling map can be a good way to explore this.

Combining this with an understanding of whether we are advocating - trying to persuade people of a position or inquiring -being genuinely curious can be very helpful.

Advocacy Opinions and stories about the past eg “Let me tell you what happened …” Interpretations (judgments) based on wishes and fears eg “You’re an extrovert, and extroverts...” Predictions (negative and positive) eg “It will be a disaster” … “It will be brilliant!”
Inquiry Coherent and relevant narrative about past experience eg “A fact is that I saw …” Present experience, common sense, and testing of reality eg “When you say that right now I think X and I feel Y …” Plans and goals eg “How will we know when we have succeeded? When…”

Adapted from Lewin (1951) and Agazarian (2001) with a bit of Schein thrown in for luck.

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