Confrontation with Empathy

This is part two of a series on Confrontation. The first part is here. These responses were provoked by this tweet from Tobias Mayer.

I’m beginning to think that confrontation is the most important behavior to cultivate in today’s IT organization. – @tobiasmayer

In the first post, I introduced two views, or mental models, of the concept of ‘confrontation’ – one that I call ‘collision style’ and one I call ‘collaboration style’.  In this post, I want to examine how we might modify our thinking so that we catch ourselves just as we are about to experience a ‘collision’ and transform it into a  ‘collaboration’ style confrontation.

To do this, I will introduce the concept of ‘Enemy Image’ as used by Marshall Rosenberg.  Non-Violent Communication embraces the radical notion that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong.  Yet, in our everyday thinking, we are constantly having images – based on our experiences in the world – that speak to rightness and wrongness; these are the images Rosenberg refers to as enemy images.   Every expression of anger, blame, insinuation, mistrust which comes out in a ‘collision’ type confrontation is in fact the tragic expression of unmet needs and is usually preceded by a flash-in-the-pan moment where the enemy image takes over.  What if we could become aware of those images, intercept them and transform them into feelings, needs, and requests. Let’s use the example from the prior post.

In the first post, the team lead/manager confronts (collision style) another team member on poor quality.  We might imagine that this manager has a need for some assurance that his or her own commitments and vision will succeed; a need for closer collaboration; a need for earlier feedback. But he does not express this. Instead, this manager has formed an ‘enemy image’ of the team member. The following thought has made an imprint on his consciousness: ‘I knew this coder didn’t care about quality. His introvert personality is unacceptable. He can’t even give me a heads up or a lame excuse.’  Following this image rearing its head, the manager proceeds to confront the team member.

An enemy image can be about yourself or others – and can be either positive or negative. It serves in every case to separate or distinguish you from others or you from your highest expression of yourself. Enemy images disable you from empathizing or examining what might be going on for you and the other person.  For a full explanation of how this works, please read this short introduction, taken from the book: Words that Work in Business, by Ike Lasater.

Imagine that the manager had acknowledged the enemy image in his mind before meeting with the team member. He might proceed with this thinking: Wow, I’ve boxed this person into a stereotype with no knowledge of the context. I hold this ‘enemy image’ that is preventing me from connecting in a way in which I might uncover what is going on.  Let me connect with my feelings and needs first:  I feel sad and frustrated that my vision for a quality product isn’t coming together in the output of the team.  I need to feel engaged and happy to be at work, and that usually comes from having a connection with the people and the work, especially when we produce great stuff. Right now I am not feeling that.  I want to share this with the team member and ask what might be going on for him. Maybe there is something I don’t know about; maybe there is some way I can support a better outcome; maybe I’ve never communicated what it is I need so that he might see my motivation better and connect with me better.

Do you see the difference?

This process isn’t only relevant to work.  I will tell you a  personal story to illustrate this.

Last week, I suffered from a very painful intestinal ailment.  On Wednesday evening, when my husband returned from work, I was in so much pain, I couldn’t  help with dinner. I went to lie down. After some time, when no-one came to check on me, I felt extremely lonely and sad.  I started forming an image in my mind of my husband as someone who wouldn’t be a good care-taker in the future. I thought, this image is not helpful. This is not helping me connect with him. He had a long day at work. He is doing all the dinner preparation. I haven’t really shared that much about my ailment – though I thought he knew I was in pain.  At that point I texted: I am sad that I am alone in my pain and illness. I need some reassurance and comfort that things may get better.

He replied: I didn’t know you are in pain. I thought you were just tired.

I replied: No, I have been in excruciating pain for hours.

If I had not first ‘caught’ my enemy image and then connected with my feelings and needs: I might have confronted him collision style:  ‘Can’t anyone around here think of me? Why are you ignoring me?  Can’t you see I’m sick and could use some comfort?’

I discovered the amazing power of this process through practicing it in this manner.

As you go through your day, you might keep a journal of the moments you experience where you have formed an ‘enemy image’. Work with that image to understand first what needs of your own are not met in that moment. Jot down your feelings and needs so that you might better be able to connect empathetically. From that space, you may then feel more empowered to ask for what you need and be more likely to have your needs met.

Will you try this and tell me how this works for you ?

This empathetic approach to confrontation can work even in a setting where positional power might be seen as a barrier.  I will be attending an NVC workshop this Sunday with Miki Kashtan of BayNVC that addresses just this. It is my first NVC workshop and I feel so blessed to have this chance. I may follow up with a 3rd post on this topic based on my learnings there.  Stay tuned.

Explore posts in the same categories: Courage, Dialogue, Organizational Change, Personal Growth, Teams

2 Comments on “Confrontation with Empathy”

  1. philipp68 Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I have seen many “agile” teams who define themselves by forming an enemy image about everyone around them: “We are flexible and agile, you are not!” This image has an impact on the language they use when trying to convince others about the “right way to do things”, which turns the transformation of the whole organization into a big fight. We could all benefit so much by learning the principles of NVC.

    Like


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