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How we communicate at Outlandish

By Abigail Handley, 03 Nov 2020

At Outlandish, we recognise the value of good communication and are on a journey to raise our awareness of our own unconscious patterns of behaviour and change them for the better.

We have found these techniques so useful that we have started running workshops to help others develop their own skills.

These notes describe some of the skills we use that can be learnt and practised. They describe different ways to speak and interact with peers that may be useful when working in and running any business or organisation that values cooperation. They are also useful for collaborating with anyone who we value – including anyone we do business with.

You’ll notice that these ways of speaking are different from those that are habitually used by many people. Changing habits can be difficult – the best ways we have found to do that is by adopting an attitude of learning, practising endlessly, and reminding each other when we drift back into old habits.

The three different ways are:

  • Using “I”-Statements or “I”-Messages
  • Clarifying Feelings, Observations, Needs and Thoughts (FONT)
  • Paraphrasing and summarising

Using “I”-statements or “I”-messages

This idea was developed by Thomas Gordon many years ago. In its simplest form, the idea is to say “I”, instead of “you” or impersonal statements about others using “is”.

For example, “I feel sad” instead of “you are making me sad” or “When I am interrupted, I lose my concentration” instead of “you’re interrupting me!”

These “I”-statements enable us to focus on communicating our own feelings and needs to others. They also encourage us to take responsibility for our own feelings and needs – rather than projecting them on to others.

Feelings, Observations, Needs, and Thoughts (FONT)

This approach helps individuals break down what they feel from what they observe, and what they need from what they think about a situation. An easy way to remember these is to remember the acronym FONT.

Observations

An Observation is something I see or hear or sense. So, for example, “When you slammed the door…” is not a simple observation. It is an observation combined with a judgement. Perhaps you heard the noise of the door shutting, and it seemed loud to you, and you felt annoyed, and you decided it had been ‘slammed’.

Another example might be “When you flew off the handle just now” or “When you stormed out of the room”. It is unlikely this is what was actually seen or heard! People can’t really fly, nor can they actually ‘storm’.

A better observation might be “When I heard you say XXX…” or “When you left the room…”. Taking the emotions and judgements out of observations helps because there is then something we can agree on. “When you slammed the door…” is as likely to lead to the rejoinder “I didn’t!” as anything else.

So making clear observations can prevent making an argument worse.

Feelings

A Feeling is a subjective sense that includes a bodily sensation of some kind.  For example, when cross, you might feel hot, or tense, or have some other sensation in some part of your body. You might notice your jaw is clenched. Whatever it is, it is worth getting to know your feelings.

It is also easy to muddle thoughts and feelings. In fact, often people will say “I feel like we should go to a Chinese restaurant” or “I feel that it is wrong that people are discriminated against”.

These are not feelings. These words – “I feel like” or “I feel that” – describe thoughts. A feeling is a bodily sensation, and one way to recognise a feeling is to check if it falls into one of these five categories:

  • Mad (angry)
  • Glad
  • Sad
  • Hurt (or ‘sick’)
  • Scared

There are perhaps thousands of feelings but they tend to fall into one of these categories (these are from Gervase Bushe). There are also many gradations – I can feel mildly anxious or terrified, for example.

Thoughts

Thoughts are hard to describe. They come very fast – as Goethe said, at the speed of light – tumbling over one another.

We have thoughts that are about the past (memories) and thoughts about the future (dreams/fantasies). There are also negative thoughts, and positive thoughts. You can think things about yourself and other people; about the broader situation and what is happening right now, right in front of you.

Needs

Finally, there are Needs (and Wants, and Values). Needs include those described in Maslow’s famous ‘pyramid’ – basic, physiological needs for food or water through to higher-order needs such as companionship and a sense of belonging. No matter what our personality, we all have needs for recognition, achievement and desires of some kind.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs including WIFI and battery

When needs are (not) met, feelings may arise in us, such as a feeling of anxiety or anger. These are all completely natural and happen without our control, often without us realising. Focusing on the connection between our needs and our feelings can really help bring us clarity in our speaking and enable others to really understand what it is we are asking for.

We may be seeking reassurance that things will be OK (a need for ‘safety’). For example, I may have recently been given access to financial forecasts. Seeing a pessimistic 6-month forecast might reasonably bring up anxious feelings. Understanding where these feelings are coming from can help others to respond supportively. Often we don’t express our feelings or needs openly leaving others scratching around in the dark, reacting to our tone of voice and language, or making assumptions.

Bringing All Four Together

So there we have it: four different types of thing to speak about. Four different types that are often muddled up and instead should be considered separately.

If our goal is to communicate something clearly, then it is worthwhile trying to clarify what we are trying to say, before we accuse the listener of not understanding us.

As an example of a way in which all four of these may be used together combined with an “I” statement, you might say “When I see the latest figures, I think that there may be a problem coming up, and I feel a bit anxious, because I need security”.

  • “When I see the latest figures” – an observation
  • “I think that there may be a problem coming up” – a thought
  • “I feel a bit anxious” – a feeling
  • “because I need security.” – a need

Recognising our thoughts as what they are can be particularly useful. Knowing that our feelings are often triggered by our thoughts, gives us the freedom to consider whether we believe the thought to actually be true.

Paraphrasing and Summarising

Communicating takes place between at least two people – a speaker and a listener. Both have some responsibility for ensuring that communication takes place.

Paraphrasing and summarising is a great way to make sure we are really listening to someone. This is not the same as parroting back what someone said. It is also not a competition – the aim is not to demonstrate how good our memory is. The aim is to really hear what the other person is trying to communicate.

If we listen carefully, and ask questions appropriately, it may be possible to get a fuller understanding of the meaning the other person is trying to convey. This meaning often includes one or more feelings. When we hear and connect with what someone else says, then we have usually connected with their feelings about it too, and appreciated their needs. We all have feelings and needs in common.

Recognising what another person says doesn’t mean we have to say the same words out loud. There is now some evidence from neuroscience that our ‘mirror’ neurons allow us to experience what another person experiences. Perhaps this is how feelings can be ‘received’ without words? Body language is a subtle and powerful thing.

We may share feelings and needs, and be able to connect over them. But our personal perceptions of situations are almost always different from those of other people – because we are literally in a different position, and our personal histories affect our conscious and unconscious biases and thus what we see and hear. So our observations and thoughts may be quite different from other people’s, and so it is useful  to make sense of things from our own perspective.

So how are we trying to bring this to others?

Through the coronavirus outbreak we are offering all of these workshops fully remotely. The process we train and you practice in is centred around turn-taking and therefore translates particularly well to remote delivery. You can find out when the next events are by visiting our workshops page.

These can also be adapted for in-house training sessions and work really well as an away day activity to get teams thinking about how they could work differently.

If this has piqued your interest then please get in touch and we can arrange a chat.