Why does one startup succeed wildly while another with a similar model and talented team fails miserably? Case studies might highlight the winner’s flexible business model or responsive community management. They might point to the failure’s wasted budget or poor product planning. But, in the end, all of that boils down to communication. No matter what, the fate of every company depends on the team’s ability to communicate clearly and constructively.
This might sound obvious. But according to well-known executive coaches Ann Mehl and Jerry Colonna, there’s a vast difference between talking and speaking so that you can be heard. With experience training senior leaders at companies like Kickstarter, Etsy, SoundCloud, and more, they’ve emerged with concrete tactics for fixing and establishing great communication. Emphasizing awareness, responsibility and empathy, this method has been termed “nonviolent communication” — and in this exclusive interview, Mehl and Colonna explain how it has helped hundreds of tech professionals elevate their game.
What Does Nonviolent Communication Sound Like?
Say you’re an early employee at a startup. You’re probably working 12 to 14 hours a day doing the work of three people. So which question would you prefer to hear from a teammate?
A. Will you get your work done this week?
B. What do you need to hit your deadline this week?
The first is an example of a closed question. It requires a “yes” or “no” response and does nothing to acknowledge your dedication or address your feelings about it. You know there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, and just knowing that is likely to make you tense, agitated and defensive.
The second is an open question. It does acknowledge the level of effort you’re already putting in and offers to help. It asks for more than a one-word reply — it seeks valuable input. You may still be accountable for getting that chunk of work done on time, but now you feel respected and appreciated as a colleague.
Mehl and Colonna have seen the startup mentality take hold many times. Most entrepreneurs are chronically afraid of disappointing people — of running out of money, making the wrong decision or making a bad hire. Over time, this anxiety changes the way they speak to people. They become terse, demanding, direct to a fault. And in the end, this is what dismantles their plans. When someone leads from a place of fear, they will ask closed questions and get closed answers.
Language choices have a huge impact on what you can get done. Our use or abuse of words in daily conversation can be transformative or destructive. And while you may not consider anything you’ve ever said to be “violent,” Mehl has seen how words can tear workplaces apart.
“Nonviolent communication lets us reframe how we express ourselves and hear others,” she says. “It allows us to speak in terms of what we observe, how we’re feeling, what our needs are, and how we respond to others’ requests.
The objective of nonviolent communication — sometimes called compassionate communication — is to empower functional giving and receiving. If implemented correctly, it can replace knee-jerk reactions and old, ineffective patterns. It can be built like any habit.
There are four ingredients to pay attention to:
1. Observation: Take a mental step back and just watch what's happening in the current situation. What are you hearing others say? What do they physically do? Record these observations in your mind without assigning value to them. Hold back from judgment or evaluation. Say what you see, but not what you think of it. Examples: “What I’m hearing you ask me is…” or “I see that you want this…”
2. Emotional Audit: Check in with your body and identify adjectives that describe the sensations you’re feeling. Are you hurt? Scared? Joyful? Irritated? Choose words that are specific to your experience — not words that insinuate what another is doing. Describing your feelings as being overlooked, devalued, unheard or pressured all suggest that someone else is doing something to you and won’t foster mutual understanding. Choose these words very carefully. Examples: “I am feeling tired because…” “When this happens, it makes me feel like…”
3. Needs: List the needs that are connected to the feelings you’ve identified. What is lacking that would make you feel better? Is it space? Appreciation? Balance? Support? Acceptance? Security? Belonging? Articulate what it is you need to move forward. Example: “Because I value my happiness, I need…”
4. Requests: Needs and requests are actually different. Needs are the missing pieces. Requests are what you use to get them. Usually, you are looking for something from another person that will enrich your life, your work or your experience. Accordingly, you want to take their feelings and needs into account. The best way to do this is to build flexibility and freedom into your ask. Examples: “I am wondering if…” “Would you be willing to?”
Colonna stresses the importance of step one. So often with observation, you get stuck on a preconceived set of feelings. You already have judgments about what you are seeing or hearing, and you can’t help but be affected by them.
“Watch out, because the jump from observation to judgment happens almost immediately,” he says. “We might observe, ‘Jane is late to this meeting. Jane is late to a lot of meetings.’ That’s fine. We get into trouble when we tack on, ‘Jane has no respect for her colleagues.’ That’s not an observation. That’s a judgment. To get observation right, just stick to the facts — the lowest common denominator that everyone would agree happened.”
Both Jane and her boss would likely agree that she is late to meetings. It’s an objective fact. But before her boss rushes to judgment about what Jane’s lateness means, he should give her the chance to explain.
He might say something like: “When you’re late to a meeting, it makes me feel like you’re not prioritizing the time.” This gives her the space and opportunity to provide new information. Maybe she’ll say, “I’m sorry, I was late because I’m having child care problems, and I felt uncomfortable sharing that with the group.” Now they've surfaced an important issue and can work to solve it together, says Colonna.
Nonviolent communication is designed to strip away the narrative people automatically build in their heads — that big looming cloud of supposition you might be carrying around about a person or situation, disabling you from working effectively, Mehl says. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, the best tactic is to become self aware first and share how you feel only once you’ve thought it through.
Managing Conflict Strategically
When conflict arises in the workplace, people have two tendencies: 1) To hide from discomfort and hope the issue dissipates; and 2) to address the conflict head-on, often without filtering the words they use. Neither response is correct. Avoiding problems only allows them to fester and impact more people, while hasty, non-strategic communication can turn a small fire into a blaze.
“There's no such thing as a conflict-free environment, so you better learn how to deal with it.”
To help clients work through confrontations mindfully, Mehl also recommends the A-E-I-O-U Model of Managing Conflict. It’s distinguished from other strategies by assuming that both sides of any argument mean well — basically, that there are positive reasons behind each person’s actions.
Standing for Acknowledge, Express, Identify, Outcome, and Understanding, the A-E-I-O-U method can be used to resolve a variety of standoffs: employee-to-boss, peer-to-peer, co-founder to co-founder. It’s particularly useful for early startups, Mehl says, because everyone knows each other and is learning together. No matter how old your company is or how it’s structured, employees should always feel comfortable approaching managers and communicating on a level playing field. The other rule is that finding a solution to the problem at hand is the highest goal. To do that, you must separate the person you’re in conflict with from that problem.
Mehl advises preparing constructive statements ahead of time before heading into any confrontational discussion. Doing this will help you stay focused and minimize incoherent or incomplete explanations. Preparing also sends the signal that you're invested in doing the right thing. It demonstrates good will.
Here’s a closer look at the steps:
Ann Mehl launched her own coaching practice in 2005. Her clients have included Citigroup, Kickstarter, Etsy, Shapeways, Morgan Stanley, Yahoo, The Discovery Channel, Skillshare, and more. She tweets at@annmehl.
ACKNOWLEDGE: (See the positive intentions) Assume the other person in the argument means well. Try to understanding his or her rationale and state it out loud directly to them. Announce that you know that they are trying to do something good, and that you do have a grasp on why they are doing what they’re doing.
EXPRESS: (What you see) Affirm the positive intention you’ve identified and express your own specific concern. Use statements that make it clear that your words are your own: “I think/I feel.” If you’re mediating a conflict, invite each side to take a few minutes to clarify their precise worries or issues.
IDENTIFY: (Propose a solution) Clearly define your objectives and recommendations. What’s the outcome you want to achieve? Non-defensively propose changes you’d like to see occur using the phrasing, “I would like…” as opposed to “I want…” You should try to build consensus by demonstrating how your solution will resolve everyone’s concerns, not just your own.
OUTCOME: (Outline the benefits) What’s in it for your opposition if they agree to accommodate you? People respond much more positively when they can buy into the reason for changing their actions or behavior. What are the advantages of your proposal? Don’t forget one of the most powerful motivators is simple recognition (i.e. “Thanks, I appreciate your flexibility on this issue,” or “I owe you one”). This can go a long way toward establishing harmony.
UNDERSTANDING: (Ask for feedback) Either nail down agreement on a next action or step, or work together to develop alternatives. Asking something like, “Can we agree to try this for a little while to see if it works for both of us?” gives the other person the option to accept your proposal without admitting defeat.
Throughout the A-E-I-O-U process, it’s critical that you maintain an environment conducive to resolution. Keeping calm is the top priority. Clarify misunderstandings in real time by applying active listening skills. Continue to rephrase things to ensure crystal clear understanding: “What I hear you saying is…” “Am I correct in thinking that your biggest concern is…?” This way, there won’t be room for doubt about people’s goals and intentions, and it gives each party a chance to clarify and speak their mind.
“It's like a game of tennis— the longer you keep the ball in play, the more you learn from each other.”
And, just as tennis players are happy winning best out of three or five sets, colleagues may need to go multiple rounds before a solution is reached. You shouldn’t expect to resolve situations in a day, Mehl says. Both she and Colonna have encountered co-founders who were barely able to talk to each other. Applying the A-E-I-O-U method gave them a reason to talk, and eventually transitioned into healthy, regular communication.
Putting It Into Practice
Once you decide that your company needs to communicate in a different way than it has been, the very first thing you need to do is start modeling better behavior yourself. Formally presenting a new system of communication out of the blue runs the risk of sounding clunky, process-oriented or time-consuming. Mehl and Colonna suggest that founders first become living examples, and it’s surprising how fast others start emulating what they do.
Here are some things you can do to start signaling a shift in communication:
Set clear expectations around every project and objective. Err on the side of providing too much communication.
When giving instruction, ask your colleagues to repeat back what you just said to ensure you were fully understood. Tell them that you are doing this for your own benefit so that you can improve the way you relay information, not because you’re afraid they won’t understand.
Say early and often that all staff members are welcome to speak up in every situation. You want to build an environment where no one is too intimidated to present a fresh idea or correct an error.
Give praise generously, and positively reinforce people who exhibit similar communication techniques.
Pay close attention to all non-verbal communication when you are talking to anyone. Remember how critical it is to observe without judgment. People will feel like they have your full attention.
“I have seen clients introduce tenets of nonviolent communication when emotions are running high, or when they know they have to say something that will be hard for another person to hear,” Mehl says. You can start by applying the principles in these types of heated situations, and then gradually rely on them more and more.
If you are trying to establish a new mode of communication to solve a particular conflict, it’s highly recommended to have a moderator present. This can be a coach, an advisor, or simply someone neutral who is familiar with the dynamics of your company. Once one person is transparent about their feelings, it often creates a safe space for others to come forward, and this builds momentum.
If you find yourself in the moderator role, make sure you’re not doing all the heavy lifting yourself, Mehl says. Instead, you want to ask questions that lead people to their own insights and conclusions. She suggests asking each party the following questions before you get them in the same room:
What do you ultimately want to achieve?
How can I best help you think through what to do next?
Should we look at the direction you’re leaning in and why?
Would you like to practice what you’ve prepared to say with me?
Regardless of how you decide to introduce this new system of communication to the rest of your team, you are sure to encounter naysayers and get pushback. Ironically, Mehl says, those who struggle the most to communicate their needs and concerns clearly are more likely to resist these new ideas. They’ll bristle at the thought of more process and claim that it feels unnatural to change the way they talk. Exceptionalism is a common response: “That’s great, but it won’t work for us,” people may say.
“You can use nonviolent communication and the A-E-I-O-U method during group sessions to delve into what resistant people are thinking and feeling,” says Colonna. “We’ve seen it happen where as they express themselves honestly, the value of it dawns on them: ‘Hey, I’m using this right now, and it’s giving me the tools to express myself clearly, whoops.’”
As companies grow through each stage, leaders need to continue to apply and adjust these tools and techniques. The earlier you start using them the better, because then every new employee you onboard will be initiated into your improved, clear style of communication. It will become a pillar of your culture.
“You can't teach self-awareness, but when people see it demonstrated and rewarded over time, they develop it too.”
An early-stage startup has a rare opportunity to install a three-dimensional model of communication at their company that will serve them for years of growth to come.
“In two-dimensional cultures, people think and immediately act — this is very prevalent in workplaces,” says Colonna. “We advocate for a third dimension: connect, think, then act. This requires finding the empathetic connection with the people you’re working with or talking to first, and then moving forward from there.”
The Benefits of Better Communication
When startups experience conflict — particularly between leaders — efforts quickly become uncoordinated, motivations get misunderstood, and results fall short of expectations. You simply can’t produce an incredible product if the team building it won’t agree on fundamentals. It’s arguable that you can’t make something truly great unless people actually enjoy working with one another. Especially early on, if two people have a problem, the entire team takes a hit. People take sides and mimic bad behavior, Colonna says.
“Good interpersonal skills are correlated with higher degrees of resiliency, satisfaction and higher productivity,” says Mehl. “People start to feel safe in their immediate environment, and that allows for vulnerability and authenticity when it’s most important. If you can figure out how to make this standard at your company, you can focus on the work more.”
Fixing communication gives a startup the tools and foundation they need to get the most out of the limited resources and capital they have. “Suddenly team members start getting each other, and the work they share between them becomes less of an effort,” says Colonna. “That can mean a big step up in productivity.”
This doesn’t mean that there won’t be any more problems or confrontations once you have a better communication system in place, Mehl emphasizes. Rather, you’ll have the strategies and techniques you need to handle them as they arise. It's an ongoing practice, not a quick fix.
Sometimes a conversation may start down the right path, but someone says something inflammatory and it quickly escalates out of control or damages the dynamic. Don’t worry, Mehl says, there are several things you can do to recover and reel people in. It is possible to change the tone mid-discussion.
“It might sound simple, but a lot of people forget that taking a deep breath, a pause, a quick walk around the building can totally change their mindset,” she says.
“Literally changing one's view can hit the reset button on a conversation.”
Another tactic is to take a trip down memory lane. Talk about everything that has happened and been accomplished to get your startup to where it is now. This reminds people that they are on the same team, and that they are committed to the same mission. Backtrack to the last time everyone agreed on something and use that emotional recall to encourage agreement in the present.
“It’s incredibly helpful to talk about the early days — the inside jokes, the long nights, what brought everyone together in the first place,” says Mehl. “Why is everyone here? Why are they working so hard on this business at this point in time? Answer these questions, and you’ll get everyone back on the same page.”
Taking time out to remember the ‘why’ of the work brings people that have diverged in their thinking back together. It’s also the best way to renew everyone’s energy as you look toward the future.