Communication Culture at the Gnar

  • January 19, 2022
  • Ian Del Duca
  • 10 min read

Communication means sink or swim in consulting

Thanks to technology, we have more ways to communicate than at any other time in history. But I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the average exchange has often become more difficult, burdensome, and ineffective. A person need only look at the ubiquitous comment section of nearly every website to see this. As a society, we seem to have been focusing on increasing the overall volume of communications while precious little resources are channeled into increasing the overall quality of the communications we participate in on a given day.

This widespread shift in communication style is challenging for anyone to manage but at The Gnar, we occupy an interesting space in our day-to-day work. The nature of simultaneously being a consultant and a contributing software developer is a trick that we are required to perform successfully all the time and I'd say we're pretty good at it! However, one thing that can make or break our ability to do this consistently is our ability to communicate effectively. As journeymen/women who are required to constantly adapt to changing situations these skills need to remain sharp for us to remain effective and deliver value to our clients and team mates.

However, unlike the technical training each of us has received in our respective areas of expertise, people rarely receive any training in how to be a highly effective listener and communicator. The best case scenario is that we stumble upon these skills by trial and error. Since we value these skills so highly as an organization, The Gnar has begun to take steps to make this kind of training more deliberate and effective.

It all started one day when I was in a 1-on-1 with Taylor Kearns, our Head of Consulting here at The Gnar. We had begun talking along these lines and Taylor had mentioned to me the desire to bring more practical learning opportunities to Gnarnians for learning and practicing these skills. I remembered a very effective workshop that I had been a part of several years ago at another consultancy I had worked at concerning Imposter Syndrome which I had found to be highly effective, led by a talented therapist, Sarah Larkin-Birdsong. I agreed that I would reach out to Sarah and see if we could set something up at The Gnar. And so... The Gnar's first-ever Communication Workshop was born!

Key Takeaways

"Listening and Empathy are skills to be practiced and built, not inherent qualities of certain people."

Sarah started us off with a few icebreakers and exercises designed to illustrate that different aspects of communication may be hard for us merely due to a lack of practice, not a flaw in our personalities.

"There is no emotion that you have ever felt that hasn't been felt by millions of other people... billions."

She then provided us with a practical guide to naming our emotions more specifically in order to help us help others to understand where we are coming from at a given moment.

A larger emotional vocabulary helps us to be more effective communicators.

"Reflecting back what you hear [people] say is the only way either of you know you heard them."

Then we paired off and did an active listening exercise where one partner would speak for two minutes while the other partner simply listened. Then the listener would reflect back what they had heard for one minute. The result of this tended to illustrate:

1. How easy it is to really listen to someone and understand them.
2. How easy and effective it is make someone feel heard
3. How feeling truly heard can help strengthen relationships between people.

If you've never tried doing something like this, I'd highly recommend it. I think most of us found it to be a pretty revelatory experience.

"Guidelines for Difficult Conversations"

After our active listening exercise was complete, Sarah led us through the guidelines for practicing non-violent communication:

1. Speak from your own experience

A conversation takes place only between its participants, so avoid bringing others' opinions or perspectives into your conversations. It can muddy the waters of your communication here and now. Also, avoid assuming you understand the other party's perspective already and allow them to speak from their own experience.

2. Listen and Validate (AKA "Yes, and...")

Show someone that you have heard what they said by reflecting/repeating it back to them and validating it. Understanding someone's perspective correctly is essential to effective communication. Validating that perspective provides common ground and promotes good will to further ease an interaction. Validation does not mean you forfeit your right disagree or talk further about the matter, only that you acknowledge, understand, and respect their point of view.

3. Focus on the behavior, not the person (who is performing the behavior) or the impact, not the intention.

Focusing on behaviors and impacts allows the conversation to feel less personal, which in turn can help deescalate conversations before they become conflicts. It is also an opportunity for you to care for the other party by addressing the real consequences and feelings they are dealing with as a result of the present situation as opposed to making them feel defensive as if their ego or character is under attack.

4. Be kind: Truthful is not necessarily nice -- Take a risk into vulnerability

Most people are more comfortable receiving feedback than giving it. It tends to be a lot easier to gloss over issues than to do the uncomfortable work of confronting them. To do so however, can be an incredibly generous thing to do. Addressing challenges when they are small and uncomfortable saves you and the other party having to deal them (and their outcomes) when they have snowballed and become overwhelming.

"If there is an elephant in the room, and you are able to say something, there are probably other people there who are aware of it, who aren't able to say something. So you're likely saying it for a lot of people."

"The Compass of Shame"

Sarah brought us this image called the "Compass of Shame" which maps different stress responses, one or more of which are employed by most people. Recognizing your own behaviors when you yourself have been stressed/challenged/triggered can help you to approach conversations in a more balanced and centered way, as well allowing you to recognize and release stress within yourself.

The Compass of Shame shows early warning signs that you are experiencing an over-activation of your stress response.

"Non-Violent Communication: A Crash Course"

1. "Urgency is myth, there is always time"

Rushing to address issues and forcing a sense of urgency can lead to sloppy communication with unintended consequences. Take your time, approach the situation only when you are ready.

2. Stay Curious

Approach interactions from a "Help me understand..." perspective. This is essentially the active listening/mirroring exercise we began the workshop with.

3. Stay Collaborative

Communication is inherently a cooperative endeavor. Be sure you are sharing the work and the rewards of it with the other party equitably. Say your piece and allow them to say theirs.

4. Stay Optimistic

Most people have a tendency to approach difficult conversations with the worst case scenario outcome in mind. This can inadvertently prime the conversation to go poorly. Allow yourself, the other party, and the conversation the benefit of the doubt.

"If you can't imagine the conversation going well... how is it [ever] going to?"

5. First, address the facts...

Try to keep the discussion to things that are objective and undisputable as the conversation begins. Sticking to these types of topics helps to keep things focused on behaviors and impacts and not people and personalities.

NB: "How something impacted you is a fact."

ex. "You've missed our weekly retro this week for the second time."

6. Then, address the feelings (impacts)...

Try to address the impacts that the other person's actions have had on you. It doesn't matter if two people would be impacted the same way or not by a certain action. Instead, it's more important to have a shared vocabulary and have a mutual understanding of what the impact feels like or how it is experienced. Remember to try to be as specific as possible to avoid ambiguity and home in on that mutual understanding.

Specificity in terms of how you've been impacted helps to clarify difficult conversations

ex. "When you miss retro I become very frustrated."

7. Then, address the needs...

In each workshop I've done with Sarah, I've found that there's usually one specific moment where she says something very simple that to me seems so earth-shatteringly profound I end up taking it with me forever after. During our workshop it happened when Sarah was addressing the subject of needs and it's so good I am just going to include it in its entirety:

In reference to the above table of needs:

"If you question your right to [any of] these, that is a really good thing to explore... because you are entitled to all of this... as a human being on this earth, you are entitled to all of these things, and if anyone ever suggests that you are not [entitled to all of these things]... that is... ????information????. Also, if you think you're entitled to more than this... that is [also] something to explore."

ex. "I think I got become so frustrated because retro is really important to me and the team and it doesn't feel like you're giving it the respect it deserves..."

8. Finally, make a request...

This should be something actionable that the other person who impacted you can do to avoid impacting you similarly in the future.

ex. "Hey, if you're going to miss retro can you please check-in with the rest of the team about what was discussed? Also, can you make an extra effort to be at the next one?"

Bonus: How to give a good apology

1. Acknowledge what went wrong

Again, active listening/mirroring.

2. Apologize for what went wrong

An expression of regret, an acknowledgement of your impact.

3. Make a commitment for future behavior

Apologies without a commitment to do better are empty.

4. Say "Thank you" for the feedback

As above, giving feedback is a courageous and generous act for which you should express gratitude.

Final thoughts...

Active listening and non-violent communication aren't easy. That's probably why you don't experience them more often in your everyday life. The good news is... with practice, you can become the source!

On the whole, I couldn't have been more pleased. Not only with the workshop and valuable skills presented within, but with my fellow Gnarnians who approached the whole exercise with their typical brand of honesty, openness, and humility.

The Gnar is definitely a place where ideas and skills like these are highly valued, not simply for the practical reasons I stated in the opening, but because of the type of person who tends to work here. It's been great to be a part of a work environment where that is true, and I am very excited to see so many colleagues (and management too!) take the time to look at ways where they can become even better communicators. I am excited to see all this in action on my day to day here at The Gnar as folks practice and deepen these learnings. I also look forward to the next workshop... whatever that might be. See you there ????

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