The Power of Honesty & Empathy in Workplace Communication

By Robyn Short, President & CEO, Workplace Peace Institute

Reimagining organizations by devising an innovative model that encourages productive, fulfilled, and engaged employees.



In a recent NY Times article, opinion writer David Brooks wrote about the myriad poisons affecting American society. While his article does not offer solutions, it does point to specific data points that demonstrate how violence permeates American society. The peace-building scholar Johang Galtung offers a definition of violence that guides my work: “Violence exists when individuals are influenced in such a way that their actual somatic (physical) and mental realizations are below their potential.” With this definition, we can understand the depth to which each of us experience violence in many aspects of our lives, including our workplaces.


Political violence, social violence, gun violence, and violent rhetoric on social media and cable news have become so normalized that many of us are numb to it. Numbness is a defensive response to repeated assault, and while we may not feel the blows on our physical body, our violent society wounds our spirit, causing chronic depression and anxiety. According to the CDC, an astonishing one in 10 Americans over the age of 12 takes antidepressant medication.


Our collective numbness prevents us from experiencing real connection with one another, with the natural world, and, of course, with our work. In his book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, quantum physicist David Bohm writes about widespread social fragmentation and how this fragmentation harms us as individuals.

“This is leading to a kind of general confusion of the mind, which creates an endless series of problems and interferes with our clarity of perception so seriously as to prevent us from being able to solve most of them.”

As humans, we are biologically wired to experience connection with one another. I write in great detail about the neuroscience of human connection in my book Peace in the Workplace: Transforming Conflict Into Collaboration. The fragmentation we are experiencing runs counter to our biological and neurological needs as humans, which is causing widespread burnout. Burnout causes us to be less creative, less innovative, and less resilient. This is why 38 million people left the workplace in 2021. We need to be in relationship with one another to experience the very best of ourselves.


In the article Reimagining Organizational Leadership, I offer insights for creating organizational systems that optimize relationships in the workplace and that leverage relationships as the organization’s source of power and growth. I call this type of organizational structure a “Quantum Organization.” Cultivating relationships that restore healthy homeostasis with one another requires that we communicate with one another with honesty and compassion. In doing so, we harness the collective imagination and intellectual capacity of the entire organizational system. Most of us have not had honest and compassionate communication modeled well (or at all) in either our personal or professional lives. Each of us can learn these skills.


Communication is the foundation for how humans relate. Communication is a process of giving and receiving words, sounds, body language, facial expressions, eye movement, tone of voice, etc. A shift in any one of these communication elements can create a shift in how messages are received and experienced, and these shifts inform how those for whom the messages are intended may respond, as well as assumptions about their intent. To communicate peacefully requires a person to become conscious of the often habitual and automatic responses of aggression and competition, and then consciously and deliberately choose forms of communication that instead demonstrates respect and empathy toward others and that honors the dignity that is inherent to their humanity.


The late psychologist Marshall Rosenberg developed a framework for communication called Nonviolent Communication (also referred to as compassionate communication). Compassionate communication is designed specifically to support individuals in communicating with others honestly and empathetically. As a conflict resolution practitioner and mediator, this is the most transformative approach to communication I have observed and experienced.


Compassionate communication involves expressing what we see, feel, and need, and making requests that enrich our lives based on those three elements. These requests are made with honesty while extending the very same elements of communication to others with empathy. In his book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Rosenberg explains, “When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth or our compassion.”


The self-expression framework is presented in the illustration below.

Inspired by Marshall Rosenberg's framework for Nonviolent Communication

The process of compassionate communication is not a set formula, but rather a framework that can be adapted to situations as well as to personal styles and cultural styles. The framework is an internal process that may or may not be spoken out loud, but involves giving of one’s self in the form of honest self-expression and empathetic receiving. Communication is giving and receiving in a manner that supports human security and dignity – the building blocks of peace in the workplace.


Each of us, regardless of where we sit on an organizational chart, have a responsibility to one another to be, as leadership consultant Margaret Wheatly describes, “more human human beings.” We need to take personal responsibility for creating human connection in the workplace. We are experiencing an era of unprecedented change and disruption. What happens in the world around us is mirrored in our workplaces. As the problems we are tasked with solving become increasingly more challenging, our ability to connect with one another collaboratively, honestly, and compassionately is increasingly vital.


If you want to bring compassionate communication to your organization, consider engaging Workplace Peace Institute for a learning workshop designed to meet the specific needs of your organization. Contact us for a complimentary consultation.

 

Dr. Robyn Short is the president and CEO of Workplace Peace Institute – an organizational systems design and research firm that is singularly focused on creating workplace cultures where people thrive. Workplace Peace Institute supports small to mid-sized businesses in optimizing employee engagement, maximizing organizational productivity, and improving profitability by infusing human security and dignity as foundational attributes of their business model.