Keeping communication channels open through the tough times . . . .

It seems rather incongruous that in a society of  super-sophisticated  communication, we often suffer from a shortage of listeners. – Emma Bombeck

Many of us can listen somewhat effectively when we like the person we are talking to and agree with their opinions. However, it gets way trickier  when we totally disagree with someone or get triggered or threatened by their ideas or behavior.

40 Selkirk students and staff recently got together to explore ways to continue creating a  healthy campus culture.  One of the workshops was led by the Director of the Mir Peace Centre, Randy Janzen

Randy helped us to develop self-awareness around our  patterns of shutting down when we are in  difficult conversations or conflict situations.  He reminded us that when we get upset we lose our ability to  access to our frontal cortex where we can think clearly.  To be an effective and compassionate communicator we need to be able to slow things down and observe how things have impacted us emotionally so that we can respond from a place that values connection and understanding over being “right.”

We were  introduced to the   C.L.A.R.A.  acronym with steps for skillfully  responding in difficult communication situations.  Effective use of the C.L.A.R.A. approach  disrupts  the spiral of defensiveness that often takes place when people encounter misunderstandings or disagreements:

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So here is an unpacking of the CLARA approach:

C = Calm. 

Take a moment to acknowledge your feelings (anger, upset, fear . . . .)  Take a deep belly breath followed by a long out breath.  Just notice your body, your mind and your environment.  Let your nervous system slow down and do your best to listen from a place of non-judgmental curiosity.

Speak when you are angry, and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”   – Lawrence Peter

L = Listen. 

“I wonder if we’ve had the same experiences with ______________________”

Try to really understand what they are saying.  (Don’t fall into the trap of “waiting to speak).  See if you can imagine how they experience the world and what their opinion means to them.

“I’ve never learned a thing while talking.” – Larry King

A = Affirm.  

Try to find  common ground, any shared experiences or feelings.  See if you can recognize the underlying human needs that drive their positions.  Put what they have said in your own words so they know that you are really working to understand their point of view.

Acknowledge what they said before you respond with your thoughts.  This can be done through paraphrasing – restating and summarizing key points and reflecting feelings.  In our leadership retreat we practiced responding to controversial topics with empathic responses that captured the emotional and intellectual content:

“So you believe the Keystone Pipeline will totally benefit Canadians with jobs and it frustrates you when people in B.C. seem to want their cars and oil based lifestyles, yet protest all the positive developments.”

You can only proceed when you observe that the person has calmed down and seems willing to listen.  Until this happens, you need to repeat steps one to three,  Calm, Listen, Affirm until you are both in a place where you can hear each other.

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R = Respond.

Respond to the exact concerns that the person has raised. This may be again repeating or paraphrasing their message. State your thoughts in a compassionate way.

A = Add. 

Add something about how you see the topic.  Help the other person to consider the issue in a new light, or redirect the discussion in a more positive direction.  For instance:

*  Use description instead of evaluation:
  “Lately there have been several pipelines that have burst and caused huge impact to plants, birds and animals in those areas,”  might work better than “Albertans  are just money hungry and don’t care about the environment!”
State needs instead of positions: 
“I need dependable employment so my family is fed and safe.  Their security and well-being  is my first priority” states a human need that another person can relate to as opposed to a positional statement:   “It’s totally ridiculous to just get scared that their MIGHT be a spill, when the chances are so remote and you are willing to have me unemployed and feeding my family from the food banks because you’re so paranoid and scared of progress!”
*  State feelings instead of thoughts:  
“I feel scared when I think about the risk to our waterways and how that might impact the fish and wildlife and even the lives of my children” opens the door to someone understanding your emotional world as opposed to stating your positional thoughts:  “You are just so shallow and self-centred – all you can think about is yourself when the world is going down the tubes!”
Here are role plays of Randy and Deb Wandler arguing and trying to convince each other of their positions.  In the second photo Randy shifts to a seated position that is less intimidating and listens and reflects her point of view.  His calm listening and paraphrasing help Deb to hear how he sees the situation:
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“Reach out to those you fear.  Touch the heart of complexity. Imagine beyond what is seen.  Risk vulnerability one step at a time.”
– John Paul Lederach

Here are a couple of great videos that “nail” home these lessons and show the power of just acknowledging another’s experience:

As Randy shared – becoming a better communicator is a life-long process.  CLARA  is one approach to upping your emotional intelligence skills. Tell us your experiences of trying it out.
Thanks Randy for the great reminder to always look for the basic needs and values that join us all and for helping us learn how to communicate  from a place of calm and kindness!
And, thank-you to all the amazing Selkirk students and staff and our guest facilitators Catriona Remocker and Jonny Morris who came from Vancouver to help us explore the important topics involved with mental health, substance use and building healthy campus cultures.
  Thank-you to the wonderful Bryan Webb for photos and videos to come and Anni Holtby for the beautiful graphic recording that will help us to keep reflecting and learning from the day.
And thank-you to the Kootenay  Shambhala Centre for the beautiful space and Lynn and Moriah for the delicious food!

We all worked and played together to make  this Leadership Retreat vibrant and meaningful!  More to come on some of our other explorations and discoveries . . . . .

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Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.”

What do you think is most important in communicating effectively?  Tell us your tips and stories!


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