Using Your Body

Oh no we all shout, not only must think about what we say, how we say it and now what we’re doing with our bodies whilst we are having difficult conversations? It’s a swine isn’t it?

A few weeks back I referenced Albert Mehrabian and his work in what conveys attitudes in communication. Yes his work is subject to critique, however I think that we’d all accept that our bodies play a considerable part in how we communicate. Click here for a reminder of Mr Merhabian’s work. In this article I’m going to point us at a few areas that will help us use our bodies in a way that works for us.

It’s important to remember two important things relating to communication. Firstly that “we can’t not communicate” and secondly that “nature abhors a vacuum”. As soon as people clap eyes on us their brains start to construct stories based on age, gender, dress and a multitude of other factors. When we speak, what we say and how we say it is incorporated within the ideas that they have started to construct. What we may want to convey may not what we wish – it’s a nightmare and very difficult to control! All we can do is the best we can to manage our bodies in a way that confirms our voice messages.

  • Signify Your Intention With Your Shoes

We all know the scenario – we find ourselves cornered into a conversation we don’t want to have. We know that we should concentrate, pay the other person the attention that they may deserve, but we may want to be elsewhere. The chances are our body (and our mind) are heading for the door but we know that if we listen to this person we may get a good outcome for them, for us and for whatever context we are in. In such a scenario I am a believer of signifying my intention with my shoes! Look down. Where are your shoes pointing? I am going to take a wild guess and say that they are pointing towards the door. Pick ‘em up and turn them to point towards the individual to whom you are speaking. Now you can give them your full intention. It sounds daft but do try it!

  • Matching and Mirroring with Care

I’m guessing we all know the theory here. When we are comfortable with someone we often find ourselves arranging our bodies in a similar fashion. The theory is that by mirroring, copying, the body positioning of the person we are having the (difficult) conversation with and a more harmonious or connected conversation will ensue. Also if someone is waving their arms around in a agitated fashion, this theory suggests that a more sober reflection of these gestures, let’s say my moving our hands to the same rhythm, may be more useful than a totally passive approach.

This seems like useful information to me and I might just allow myself to notice how I’m positioned and make a subtle shift to suggest a connection. I know that the Nuero-Linguistic Programming people believe that this is magic and maybe they are right. I prefer to think that it’s just something that might help.

  • Minding My Body Language Whilst Not Evaluating Others

It goes without saying that it’s a good idea to be careful with your body – especially if you are worried that you may be behaving in such a way as to promote confusion of mis-communication. You may also be aware of your body positioning too. After all, you posses the kind of communication expertise and recognise the need to take small steps to improve what you do.

However there are some commonly held ideas relating to the meaning of certain types of body language. For example what does it mean when people like noticeably less eye contact than you – or noticeably more? What does it mean when people fold their arms when you are talking about them? The chances are that our responses to such question include “shifty,” “lying”, “weird”, “defensive”. I would prefer to be mindful of such judgements. Cultures differ as do people’s behaviour and sometimes folding your arms means I’m comfortable that way.

In a sentence, be careful of people’s judgements of your body language but don’t rush to make judgements of others.

Reflective Exercise

  • do the thing with the shoes. You know you want to 😉
  • just notice what your body is doing when you’re talking to another person. You don’t need to change it, just notice it
  • ask a colleague or a friend to notice you talking to someone (not them) ask them to describe what they saw. Take care with any evaluation about your body language, it’s the descriptions you want

Keeping Yourself Safe

Being safe from harm is pretty much a perquisite for doing the kind of difficult work that we are talking about on this course. In fact, if we find ourselves at risk of serious harm our responsibility should be to ourselves and put a healthy distance between us, and those who may do us ill, a soon as conceivably possible. You may have been on a course but if they have a knife, a dog, a threatening manner of any kind or indeed if there are any other indicators of serious harm, we probably get out of the situation.

Most of us are lucky enough not to frequently confront violence and I’m glad about that. However if we are in roles where challenging conversations are the norm, we may need to be aware of the possibility of dangerous behaviour. Some of this we may consider “common sense” but its surprising how much our attitudes to violence are part of our prior life experiences and ideas of who we are. Some of this may be helpful but we probably need to make ourselves more consciously aware of our approaches to keeping ourselves, and others, safe.

Rules, Regulations and Responsibilities

I’m one of those irritating people who believe that Health and Safety regulations are good things. My first job was in an open cast coal mine and life-changing accidents, occasionally fatal, were all too frequent occurrences. There was a macho approach to safety and rules were sneered at. Organisations have a responsibility to help keep us safe and we need to make ourselves aware of these arrangements and shout out if they are not in place or our being flouted. In my first social work job I was unlucky enough to be present when my line manager was taken hostage. He was released physically unscathed but sadly never returned to work. We were a child protection team, all of which held a caseload of often very angry people. We had timidly complained for some time about the lack of security at the office entrance. Of course after this incident the builders moved in an we were given all the necessary security measures, however it was too late for that one individual.

I’m suggesting that we all find out what the arrangements are and stick to them. Make them part of the conversation in the workplace, do they work? Are they helping us relate to our customers, our service users? Encourage your colleagues to speak out those difficult and dangerous elements of the job and the measures put in place to keep us safe.

Repeat after me. Health and Safety IS cool.

Being Good at Difficult Conversations May Put us at Greater Risk

A 2016 study by the University of Bristol highlighted something interesting about safety equipment. People who road their bicycles wearing a helmet were more likely to take risks when out on their bikes. This response is called “risk compensation” and indicates that certain sorts of safety initiatives may cause people to actually take a higher level of risk. One of the indicators of receiving a knife injury is actually going out with a knife. It’s not such a huge leap to imagine that as we become more confident in dealing with difficult conversations, maybe even with those exhibiting very angry behaviour, we may allow ourselves to enter into situations where discretion might have been the better part of valour. Be mindful of this and take steps to ensure your own safety.

Intuition Being Safe vs Feeling Safe

I’d like to suggest that having difficult conversations is an advance human skill and that keeping ourselves safe from doing so is too-little discussed and rarely, if ever, taught. We are very much on our own and often have to make our own way, we really are making it up as we go along

Malcolm Gladwell wrote that great book on intuition Blink where he highlighted the powers and the pitfalls of intuition, citing incredible decision making by some individuals and impulsive prejudice influenced disasters such as the wrongful killing of black teenagers by police officers. The lesson is that we have to use intuition alongside other information about the situation we are facing.

Some of us think we are in danger when we are not, others that we are safe when at great peril. We need to use intuition, or gut feeling, along other information in order to best operate in challenging environments.

Reflective exercise

  • Make yourself aware of the security arrangements in the building you work the most. Are they fit for purpose? Do they enable you to have difficult conversations if necessary?
  • Think about the last time you were confronted by an angry or threatening individual. Think about what you said to yourself about how should have handled that situation. Check that what you might have said to yourself may be useful or indicate an over confident or casual response to threat.

Phil Jones

April 2017

Zero Sum Game – We All Win

The term Zero Sum game comes from game and economic theory in which is a each participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participants. If the total gains of the participants are added up and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. In the world of conflict mediation it has been borrowed to add weight to the notion of a “win-win” solution.

In this short article we will look at some of the practical and philosophical implications of zero-sum or win-win thinking and how this relates to holding difficult conversations and building or maintaining highly successful relationships, whether in the workplace or in our personal lives. I am going to start by setting out three positions for the outcome and process of holding difficult conversations.

Three Positions

Win-Lose or Non-Zero Sum

In win-lose situations one person comes out on top and the other loses out. Simple examples include robbery, extortion or situations where one person enters into a transaction with someone in a much less powerful position.

Win-Win or Zero Sum

In this case the value of exchange between the parties are equal. For example in shopping scenarios, there is an agreement by those who are selling and those who are buying and the exchange is mutually satisfactory or when feuding colleagues manage to come to an agreement which suits them both.

Extended Value – More Than Win-Win

A third position with a view to providing a pathway to those interested in pushing the value of holding difficult conversations beyond a neutral and successful termination of a conflict. Extended value means looking at solutions that are even greater than the successful achievement of planned outcomes of both parties. For example when conflict between teams leads to a detailed discussion of each others’ roles and functions leaving to opportunities being spotted for further efficiencies.

Things to remember

Applying this thinking in our everyday contact with other people, we may wish to remember the following.

  • Perceptions are everything

The value we place on what we exchange is crucial to achievement a successful outcome. A cup of water may be highly valued to a de-hydrated man but non at all if we are sitting in our kitchen with the taps to hand. If I exchange a service or favour with my neighbour – let’s say he mends my bathroom tap as an apology for his teenage son damaging my car with his bike – how I value the service exchanged is pretty much up to me. If I am qualified and competent plumber I may not value his service as much as if I was inept in that department. If the damage to my car is severe I may feel that this is insufficient. We decide the value of the outcome.

  • Politics of Win-win

Having said that the individuals themselves decide the value of exchanges, there is often a political (small p) context to the conversation, often relating the power relationship between the parties. The often sad and demeaning role of the sex-worker is characterized by the exchange of money from the more affluent punter to the frequently drug dependent sex worker. On the surface money is exchanged and a service offered, apparently, willingly. However the inequality of power positions of the parties leave an uncomfortable result.

  • We Are All Intertwined

In the context of family and friends, the enmeshed nature of our relationships is easy to see and to value. We do things for each other, as we know that our lives will benefit as a result. If we see work as a social context, we can see the benefit of supporting colleagues. In the context of holding difficult conversations, we may be happy to consider the other persons point of view.

Practical Strategies

  1. Win-win is in the planning

In the first session of this course “What Do You Really Want” we looked at how we might formulate our objectives. If we are interested in other people’s value, I suggest that we should consciously reflect on what they need at the planning stage. We can plan what we want and also what may be good for the other party in the discussion. If we are bartering we may wish to be careful of what we disclose, however in many situations anticipating what the other party might want can be powerful in building better relationships.

  1. Consider the Three Positions as a continuum

Whilst we may always wish to seek win-win solutions, there may be situations where this is simply not possible. Many of you reading this article will work in beleaguered public sector organisations where denying members of the public a service is a too often an occurrence as austerity bites. How can we possibly get a win-win out of a “no”? In such situations we need to do the best we can to respond to the needs of the individuals we are saying no to – their need for transparency, fairness and to have their situation recognised may seem like a poor substitute for delivering a service, however they are better than the alternative.

  1. Look out for that which benefits others

Simply put, have on your radar what benefits the people you are dealing with. An of course you can ask!

  1. Carry the principle

There are probably many values that we carry with us that we are not always able to express, although we would wish to do so. The win-win principle can slip into your wallet or purse next to kindness and fairness. If you prefer you may consider it as a further convenient belief.

What benefits others, benefits me

Reflective Exercise

  1. Consider the person with whom you are having the most difficult conversations currently. What would help them develop agreement with you?

  2. Think of the last time you reached an agreement. What could you and the other party done to achieve “Extended Value”?


Phil Jones, April 2017

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