Managing the Environment

We can’t always plan where we hold difficult conversations, sometimes they come upon us in the most inappropriate places and times. All we can do is do the best we can to create the best environment.

Let’s Keep This Between Ourselves

If it is safe to do so, privacy is critical in having difficult conversations. Firstly it allows people to speak without interference and interruption, it allows the conversation to take place without the fear of being overheard and the impact that this may have on the ability of the parties concerned to share their feelings or to talk honestly. It also prevents any potential “drama” from the conflict leaking out into other areas of the workplace – it just doesn’t help!

Being able to think on your feet here is crucial. Spotting the availability of an unused office or even a storeroom and suggesting that “let’s chat here?” could be useful. Where no such venue is readily available, suggest that one be sought so that you can talk properly. If other people are present, consider whether it would be appropriate to ask them to leave whilst you talk.

We should of course be mindful that an invitation to change venue should be seen as just that, an invitation. Both parties should be agreeable to this. Any sense of threat should be avoided to avoid the danger of a “let’s take this outside” scenario.

The Environment as Communication

Where we meet is an important message.  Albert Merhabian highlights the important place the paralinguistic element of communication play in conveying attitudes. Paralinguistic elements include the venue for meetings – for example it is said that the queen only ever smells wet paint wherever she goes, because everywhere she visits, people spruce the place up. Why? That’s because the queen is “important”. So if we make the place look nice for important people, what does that say for those whom we don’t tidy up for?

This doesn’t mean that you need to reach for the vacuum cleaner when you next have an argument with someone. However your consideration in choosing or arranging a suitable venue is likely to be communicated to the other party as a message that you are interested and have the interests of better understanding at heart.

Give Me Some Space

In week seven we’ll look more closely at the role of body language on successful communication during conflict. When it comes to thinking about space and the body we must consider proximity and power in where we position ourselves.

Whilst some people are more comfortable being physically closer to others, we know that some people prefer greater space. A few basic guidelines my be

·      Careful with touch. Difficult conversations may include someone who is upset and, in such circumstances, we may consider that they need comfort. We can demonstrate our empathy with what we may say and with our voice tone, however in most situations, touch should probably be avoided. In such highly charged circumstances, communication is rife for misinterpretation and a hand on the shoulder may be construed as controlling or too-intimate. The exception of course may be in the event of comforting our children or those close family members or friends where we can have more trust that such a gesture should not be misconstrued.

·      Head height. I would try, if possible, to arrange myself so that my head would be at the same height as the person with whom I’m having the difficult conversation. This may at first glance seem petty, maybe ridiculous. However if we consider the alternatives – being seen as looming over the other person or passively looking up at them – we can see that head height is actually a form of communication.

·      Mind Your Distance. We would all recognise that being too close or too far could be a problem in difficult conversations but how do we decide in what is the right distance? We probably need to rely on a combination of our intuition and noticing. If it feels too close or too far, it may well be. If the other person looks like they’d like to get further away or closer (threats of violence aside) we may like to respond. When seated I would recommend sitting in such a way that means that neither party could necessarily reach out and touch the other, without changing their body position of reaching forward.


Reflective Exercise

1.     When you’re next meeting someone – not necessarily a difficult conversation – just notice how you get yourself comfortable in terms of space between you. What allows you to feel safe in this setting?

2.     Consider the rooms available to you to meet with customers, service users and other colleagues. Do they communicate welcome and an appreciation towards those people.

3.     When you’re meeting with other people, what do you do with your body? Imagine that there’s a camera set up in the corner, what would it show?


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