Research Paper By Petya Wienand
(Communication Coach, BULGARIA)
Shifting Perspectives for Improving Relationship Quality
What Matters in Building Meaningful Conversations and Reconciling Conflict? (Why It Matters in Coaching?)
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go Together. An African proverb
Our entire existence is a part of a relationship network: connected heart and mind. Therefore, in a significant way, what we know ourselves to be, and what is meaningful to us is to a great extent influenced by whom we grew up with, whom and how we relate to, whom we admire or hate, how we love, and/or connect.
This idea of interconnectedness gave rise to the conceptualization of what is called “relational identity” by Brewer and Gardner in 1996 and it forms an indelible part of the coaching process. They proposed that how we see ourselves, i.e. our identity, is embedded in a personal social network, is personally important, and distinct from more impersonal memberships in larger groups and self-identity. Therefore, how we perceive ourselves to a great extent depends on what definitions and values we have internalized from significant others (parents, partners, friends, and important others) and how we approach and relate to people.
Furthermore, the way we interact with others and form relationships through our conversations inevitably touch on our identity. Hence, how we manage meaningful conversations and reconcile tensions is crucial to the quality not only of our relationships but of our well-being. To this end, more and more studies confirm that maintaining high-quality relationships is crucial to health, happiness, and life expectancy (see Friedman & Kern, 2014).
The above puts forward the question of how coaching can help improve relating to others? Being a process based on rapport, the relational identity is important in three significant ways: firstly, it will appear in the coaching relationship in terms of ability to trust and flexibility to shift a perspective; secondly, the client brings issues that are certainly related to their perception of themselves about other people; and finally, in terms of the values a client is committed to or would like to commit to, are inevitably part of their relational identity. On these grounds, coaching being a powerful instrument in shifting a perspective, increasing awareness and focusing on identity, can and does serve for improving the quality of relationships in all spheres of life, and with oneself.
Based on the above, this paper will examine what is important in relating/communicating with others for enhancing the quality of relationships, reconciling tensions, and/or conflicts, i.e. for building a genuine connection that lets us stay authentic. It will discuss what matters for improving the way we relate to ourselves and others and for the purpose it will draw on the following works:
- “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts” by Daniel Shapiro;
- “Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate” by Roger Fischer and Daniel Shapiro;
- “Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results” by Judith E. Glaser;
- “Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler
- “Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication” by Oren J. Sofer
What Do All These Works Have in Common?
All the works are based on research and experience about what works when “stakes are high”, as put by Patterson et al., or trust has been eroded, emotions are high, and hostility is tempting as a defense, at work, in private life, and international relations. In this sense, the works provide a hope that if there is a will and one cares, it is possible to build a connecting bridge, overturn negative dynamics and rebuild trust.
The overwhelming conclusion is that to establish a constructive and meaningful contact, one needs to start from a place of genuine curiosity, which is already a shift in perspective from judgment towards an understanding of the other. This is so as such a shift requires to overcome biases based on stereotypes (e.g. about race, nationality, etc.), or what we have accepted as unquestionably and rigidly true until that point in time. This means, also, to overcome possible past clashes and tensions viewed through such biases. To achieve such a shift three things need to be overcome: the desire to dominate, the desire to persuade, and the desire to be right. For this to happen, one needs to look and listen behind the words, to feel and empathize with the emotions of the other, and see their underlying need versus what is on the surface.
An illustrative example, provided by Sofer, is the story about Daryl Davis, an African American musician, who based on genuine interest, interviewed KKK leaders to understand what drives them to subscribe to such a hostile worldview. Through perseverance, warmth, respect, and ability to feel the pure human pain of the other, and continued effort, Davis managed to establish contact on an individual basis and gradually and with patience convince more than two hundred KKK members to leave the organization (Sofer, 2018).
What stands out in this example, and it is a motif that runs like a thin red line through all the models developed by the scholars and researchers (the authors of the books), is that Davis was able to approach a potentially explosive situation without prejudice on his part, i.e. without judging people who would consider him inferior and unworthy due to their beliefs. In other words, Davis was able to see that as human beings we share common underlying needs and to appreciate this needs behind the superficiality of ideology. He was able to see that the more we are aware of our core human needs and vulnerability, the more we will be able to see this in others.
The five works, mentioned above, share a lot of commonalities in the way that they all inquire into our relational identity, starting from relating to our selves as a point of reference, to explore relating to others. Both, relating internally and externally steps on building trust, having empathy for the other(and compassion for oneself), and genuinely listening (or self-awareness and desire to understand with an open mind). The latter are all necessary for having meaningful conversations, based on a two-way communication process, i.e. high-quality contact (relationship), which is a prerequisite to overcoming tensions. Trust is needed to have the contact in the first place, empathy to understand and steer away from the desire to persuade and/or be right, and listening to ensure that communication is two-way, i.e. connection versus rhetoric or persuasion. All works propose that connection happens when we start to trust each other based on emotional understanding versus judgmentalism; and is only possible through honesty, authenticity, and appreciation for the other.
The conclusions in all the works are relevant in the working environment and private life, as they essentially depend on our relational identity: we relate in similar manners in all our aspects of life and it happens based on trust, empathy, and appreciation. For instance, Damasio and Fischer review cases from the conflict in marriage to long terms international conflicts, like the war between Peru and Ecuador, all cases unequivocally pointing out that the dynamics of relating(or disconnecting) are similar.
Importantly, all the works put forward the message that relationship quality necessarily depends on a conscious decision to move away from “either…or” perspectives and stay honest and respectful in disagreement in the place of seeking ways to persuade or convince the other party. This involves three essential components: trust, emotions, and identity.
At the core of relating is trust. Covey and Merrill (2008) call it “the one thing that changes everything”. In this sense, all strategies, tools, and approaches that aim at improving relating to others, look into ways for increasing trust. According to Glaser, the latter will depend on the kind of conversations we are having. She distinguishes between three types of conversations depending on the level of trust they create and building rapport: transactional, based on ask-tell dynamics; positional, based on advocate-inquire dynamics; and transformational, based on share-discover dynamics. Trust is lowest in transactional, or conversations we make to exchange information, and highest in the transformational, or the conversations where we are curious about the other, are open to sharing and we need to connect. This is a crucial distinction with significant implications for coaching, the latter based on transformational conversations in assisting a client through a change, and also in building awareness. Additionally, the understanding that discovery and sharing conversations are essential in building trust points that an open non-judgemental mind is crucial. Hence, the prerequisite for building trust may be concluded to be clearing and opening one’s mind by intent, garnering the desire to build trust and cherish it.
Noteworthy is that all researchers view trust as a dynamic relational category versus simply either existing or broken, and inevitably built on vulnerability, compassion, and listening first. Conceptualizing trust as dynamics a powerful message that builds hope and opens opportunities for rebuilding relations that matter. For instance, Fischer and Shapiro, while researching what matters in reconciliation, and in alignment with other research, point out to the desire to understand, or listen until one could see the perspective of the other as the latter sees it. This includes cases where one might strongly disagree with the position of the other or subscribe to opposing beliefs. They make an important distinction that to understand does not mean to agree – something that is often intuitively feared and resisted. This latter distinction is crucial as it prompts a change in perspective that is more open to take in an alternative view and move away from power dynamics that spark the desire “to be right”, i.e. to dominate.
Fischer and Shapiro integrate this concept in their model for conflict resolution, which emphasizes the role of firstly building an understanding of the other party with the desire to learn (to listen without prejudice) about how they make meaning of the issue at hand, and how they feel about it. For instance, to overcome conflict, including one that has existed over a long period and has eroded trust and become deeply emotional, Shapiro recommends listening behind the words, trying to empathize with and relate to the emotion, fear, pain or insecurity of the other party to connect, similarly to what Davis had done. Thus, trust is built through empathy and listening with an open mind and is incremental, similarly to Glaser’s share-discover conversations. Along comparable lines areBrene Brown, the prominent researcher of vulnerability and courage, (2018), has proposed that trust is built in the small moments of interaction: we either turn towards the other, bravely, empathize with their emotion, and trust them, or choose to turn away.
From a coaching perspective, understanding trust as something that can be expanded, even redeemed and grown, is a rich ground to support a client in expanding their opportunities to relate better.
Furthermore, understanding how trust is created in times, where contact is increasingly becoming digital and physically remote, is crucial, as the ability to verbally express oneself and listen starts to matter even more. In this connection, the focus on listening placed by all the works listed above, emphasizes that communication needs to be intentionally steered away from rhetoric and persuasion, with the latter making communication one-way. It also means that a two-way communication process is a prerequisite for high-quality contact and for building trust. Interestingly, although this might appear common sense, it is often counter-intuitive, in particular in crucial conversations, where consequences matter,(Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, & Switzler, 2012), and which form the backbone of relationships and psychological well-being. This is so, as all communication affects us on three levels: the issue at hand, our emotions (our attitudes to the issue and the person, as expressed in the choice of language and tone of voice), and our identity.
We relate through emotions and we do everything through emotions and this is why traditional models, based on rationality alone, have not worked successfully in conflict resolution or negotiations(Fisher & Shapiro, 2006). For instance, Fischer and Shapiro, but also Patterson et al. in their frameworks to reconcile conflict or to have crucial conversations, review and address the emotional dynamics, including on the level of chemical interactions in the brain. They propose, in line with other researchers, that positive emotions help in bridging disagreements and building trust, while negative emotions lead to two options: “either our way or their way”, i.e. the power dynamic of dominating. With this in mind and given that meaningful relations are the ones that are in our lives long-term, emotional dynamics unquestionably define relationship quality at home, at work, and everywhere.
To move away from power dynamics, as created in one-way communication contexts, emotional intelligence plays a major part: being aware of one’s own emotions makes it possible to hear the emotions of the other and empathize with them, even when they hold an opposing view on an issue. This is why empathy is a crucial emotion, as it builds common ground and helps acceptance of differing views, i.e. the common ground necessary to see the other as part of the same team, facing similar insecurities and fears, and making it possible to shift a confrontational perspective.
Shapiro(2017) discusses a major emotional dialectic relevant, in particular, in conflict resolution: the tension between the need of each party to feel accepted unchanged, and change due to the shift in perspective. Any reconciliation, inherently, is about changing a pre-existing clash, which has already affected the emotions, and if not addressed, may lead to the power dynamic of the desire to be right. The latter would immediately erode trust, and if allowed, maybe even more damaging than if no reconciliation process had been started.
The above further emphasizes the crucial importance of emotional intelligence to understand and address such a dialectic and is an avenue where coaching can help immensely.
To sum it up: the researchers point out that emotions are quick and deep and will either serve to exacerbate conflict or to the contrary, reconcile it. For this reason, building awareness about one’s own emotions, in particular about our responsibility for our emotions, is the quickest way to build an understanding of the other’s emotions, i.e. an ability to feel the other. Ultimately, greater understanding leads to greater clarity and empathy, which reciprocally evokes more understanding, clarity, and empathy.
Patterson et. al note that all conversations include three levels: the issue, emotions, and identity, something reiterated in different forms by all the researchers. This means that beyond the tip of the iceberg of behavior on the surface, what matters most is the need to be seen as one sees oneself best, the need to be validated. In this sense, researchers point out that as a first step to reconciling conflict is shifting the conversation to the core needs, behind the façade of what is openly stated. Among those needs, the ones that stand out are the need to belong, autonomy, and the need to be appreciated.
The need to belong is what makes us seek validation beneath the surface of interaction, and once violated it provokes a feeling of rejection, the latter being a core fear. This need explains why often people would prefer to conform and be defensive rather than stand out for their values and become vulnerable. From this perspective, to reconcile tension, it is crucial to recognize that a difference of opinion does not disturb this need. Often awareness of this is lacking, whereby the expectation would be that sharing the same opinions creates belonging, which does happen, although, Damasio would argue, this sense of belonging is superficial and short-lived. That would be a case where friendship is built based on a perception of a common enemy, where once the “enemy” disappears, the shared ground disappears as well. Hence, Fischer and Damasio, emphasize, that long-term partnership and harmony need to seek deeper common ground, based on human values such as vulnerability, empathy for emotional pain and experiences, and that is what builds connection.
Autonomy is another core need, that often feels violated in the case of conflict. It is the need that is associated with our personal space and boundaries, hence, off-limits as it is the space that we regard as only our own. Considering that people have a different need for autonomy, related to how they grew up and what experiences shaped them, the specific expectations that satisfy this need may often go into conflict, as is the case with the need to belong. Hence, violation of autonomy is perceived as an attack, even when unintended.
Ultimately, appreciation is the need to be validated as a human being with value and dignity, and it is the first need that is sought to be satisfied in any relationship. With this understanding, Damasio stresses that reconciliation and understanding could only be possible if one can appreciate at least something about the other in a confrontation: passion, fervor, loyalty, etc. This is the crucial first step, and what is more, this is the step that prepares the necessary perspective shift as it takes the conversation into the realm, where the “other” is a wholesome human being while scaling the conflicting issue down. Essentially, appreciation lifts the conflict from being about identity, into being about a difference of opinion, and makes it possible to seek alternative solutions that satisfy the core needs of both parties.
Reflecting and accounting for these core needs is essential in understanding the other and finding a way to relate. This brings forth the importance of clarifying boundaries and also maintaining one’s boundaries, as also supported by (Brown, 2018).
Relationship quality depends on our awareness about ourselves and how we relate, i.e. to what extent we build trust, empathize, and are curious about and appreciate the other. Thus a relationship communication happens on three levels: themes of conversations, emotions, and identity, where everyone craves to be accepted as they are and have their boundaries respected. All of the components that build relationships – trust, emotions, and identity – are dynamic or have dynamic aspects, which is an immense opportunity for improving a relationship or reconciling conflict. Such a hopeful vision will depend on an open mindset to understand the perspective of the other and overcome one’s own biases. It will also depend upon an understanding that our motivation should steer away from a desire to dominate, control, or prove to be right.
From all of the above, it follows that coaching is a rich ground that could help enhance contact, relationships, and reconcile conflict as it builds on equal partnership and rapport, and non-judgmentalism.
Further, coaching is about change and shifting a perspective, which makes it an ideal tool for helping conflict resolution and enhancing relationships. This is even more important currently when the world is physically distancing and beginning more and more to rely on the ability to express oneself verbally.
To our core, we are creatures that crave belonging, autonomy, and appreciation, and once we can understand that this is the case with everybody else, we could be much more creative and constructive about how we relate on all levels.
Brewer, M. B., & Gardner, W. (1996). Who is this “We”? Levels of collective identity and self-representation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(1), 83–93. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
Brown, B. (2018). dare to lead. London: Penguin Random House.
Covey, S. M. R., & Merrill, R. (2008). The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything. Free Press.
Fisher, R., & Shapiro, D. (2006). Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate. Penguin Books.
Friedman, H. S., & Kern, M. L. (2014). Personality, Well-Being, and Health. Annual Review of Psychology, 65(1), 719–742. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115123
Glaser, J. (2014). Conversational Intelligence (1st ed.). New York: Taylor & Francis Group.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2012). Crucial Conversations (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill.
Sofer, J. O. (2018). Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication. Shambhala Boulder.