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The First Aid toolkit for workplace conversations

May 24, 2018 - 7 minute read

Do you regularly have to face up to difficult conversations with your employer, or do you struggle to make it clear to your colleagues or even your direct reports what your wishes are? Sounds like you could need some conversational First Aid.

You might also like to meet Erik, Yves and Joeri .

Under the name Loodens, which is Latin for "play", these three friends help people and organisations to restore and strengthen relationships through communication. The core of their Not-For-Profit foundation is to help develop more mutual understanding in human relationships and organisations.

The key element in their work is 'effective empathy'. Through the lens of this form of empathy, they offer 'First Aid' for conversation in all kind of situations; with colleagues, friends or customers. Users can learn this First Aid for Conversations autonomously through courses that are offered by Stichting Loodens.

We spoke to Erik Doesburg, who explained how their organisation works and how communication could be improved on the work floor.

debroekriem Amstelveen

Who do you work with?

"We work with all kinds of people who want to restore or strengthen a relationship; from people in a Syrian peace process, to a brother and sister who hardly speak to each other anymore, or a CEO and a major shareholder who cannot resolve an issue they have been avoiding for years."

What commonly goes wrong in human relationships?

"We forget to ask ourselves what we need. My colleague Yves Groen gave me a great example of this:

I remember a woman who said during a workshop: "Well, my brother and I have had a tense relationship for years, it's far too complex to solve."

We were still trying to figure out what she wanted from that relationship. Because often we know what the other person is doing wrong, but we lose sight of what we would really like them to do.

After ten minutes of effective empathy, we looked at each other in silence. I had tears in my eyes when we found out that she would simply like to receive a little more affection and love, for example an arm around her.

To find out what you want and to say it out loud can be so liberating.

You can enter into a conversation much more relaxed, so that the other person will also react differently from the way they have previously."

What behaviours do you see most amongst employees?

"If you ignore the small things, chance are they will build up into bigger things in the future.

What we often see is that small tensions build up for months or years, with the end result being that we no longer enjoy being at work.

Instead of complaining to your partner for years about that one colleague that gets under your skin - which also makes your relationship with your partner less enjoyable - I would advise everyone working in a team to make a habit of ending sentences with an empathic question, especially in tense situations.

Questions like:

  • "What do you think would be the ideal outcome?"
  • "How is this situation affecting you?"

These kinds of empathic questions work as a lubricant for open conversations. They can help solve the small tensions before they spoil your job satisfaction - with the added advantage that you won't have to ask us for help if the situation gets out of hand again."

What role does leadership play in these situations?

"When leaders work in an organisation that prioritises everyone's needs equally, the culture will become more open and the talents of employees will be utilised more effectively.

Something that leaders of an organisation can do to encourage this type of culture is to end every communication - whether in person, via e-mail or via the enterprise social network - with an empathic question such as:

  • "Is this something that you want too?"
  • "Do you have any questions or concerns?"
  • "Have I answered all your questions?"

Give the recipient the opportunity to tell you if you haven't answered their questions or informed them sufficiently.

When do you notice that there is a change in people, or in a team?

"After a wow experience.

During my first motorcycle class, we drove to a dockyard and the instructor said to me: Just throw it open completely. Wow, what a force and what a feeling that was!

However, in the five lessons that followed, I was just circling slowly around cones. But because of that first experience, I was inspired to complete the work so I could learn how to handle the motorcycle with such force.

This is what we see happens with Team Loodens. The first time people have a break through is an eye-opener - they often have goosebumps. Then we practice, so they get more and more of that feeling in their life."

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What drives change?

"The psychologist Abraham Maslow, famous for his pyramid of needs, once said:

"It isn't normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement."

When a client comes to us for First Aid in Conversations, the conversation often begins with reproaches and what the client does not want, for example:

"They're just a narcissist, and I'm not the only one who feels this way. The whole team does as well, but no one says anything. Last week I had a good idea, and they just simply did not listen to it! At the end of the meeting they just went with their idea, without any consideration to what I had contributed!"

When we use effective empathy to listen to what the person says is wrong, we can find out what they want. In the example above, the person wants:

  • To be heard and understood
  • To feel that everyone's voice matters to the team
  • Clarity around the decision making process

Once there is clarity around what they want, there is space and creativity to do something about the situation. Instead of talking about the situation with reproaches and what is wrong with the situation, they can now see clearly what they want.

Going back to the example, saying:

"You are just a narcissist!"

Is more difficult to hear than:

"I'd like a little more clarity about how we make decisions in the team, are you open to talking about it with me?"

Are these changes that people make, in regards to communication, sustainable?

"We have seen that people who are most successful in making changes are surrounded by structural support.

We use the "Empathy Tank" model as a concept to foster and sustain empathy.

Every time you are completely heard and understood, your tank is full. Every time you are not heard and understood in a conversation, you're running on empty.

The idea is that, as long as the tank is full, the creativity and engagement in one's work continues to flow. But when it is empty, we get stuck in the relationship, in our work, or in ourselves.

People often feel "empty" after situations at work where they felt like they weren't being heard or understood. Then they come to us because they want help. When we first started our organisation, it was very satisfying to help people fill up their tank completely.

But after doing just that for two years, we realised that more needed to be done to see a more permanent and sustainable change.

Instead, we now facilitate a network of people who help each other 'fill their tank', simply with an hour group session every week. I'm in it myself, and find it really useful." 

employee engagement retail report
Jozy Gallmann

Written by Jozy Gallmann

Jozy klimt graag in de pen om te schrijven over mensen en hun wensen in organisaties. Volgens haar staan medewerkers centraal in iedere gezonde organisatie.