Communication skills for successful relationships —Chapter 10: damaged relationships

Dr. Ferguson was by nature a reserved individual. She tended to avoid all conflict, but tried to make up for her introversion by being friendly and gracious with everyone.

by Sandy Roth

Dr. Ferguson was by nature a reserved individual. She tended to avoid all conflict, but tried to make up for her introversion by being friendly and gracious with everyone. Her good intentions, however, were beginning to fail with increasing frequency. It was difficult for her to understand how personal situations could get out of control so quickly. She naively wished that everyone could just get along and not be so touchy.

What she failed to see was the gradual deterioration of the relationships within her staff. She was blind to her own complicity through her lack of attention and avoidance. Her team members had never learned how to deal with conflict effectively. They avoided issues, sidestepped problems, and responded inappropriately. Because they knew her aversion to distress was high, they tried to shield her as much as possible, believing that they were doing her a favor. Yet, they had no guidance about how to deal with issues themselves; as they navigated the mine field of their working relationships, they inadvertently set off many explosions.

Before long, team members had formed factions and were terse and insensitive with one another. The tension built to a point that Dr. Ferguson could ignore it no longer. How could she lead them at this point? Neither she nor her team was equipped to handle even the smallest problem, much less one of this magnitude.


Albert Einstein suggested that to solve your problems, you must have a different frame of mind than when you created them. Relationships sustain damage by the people who exist within them. The success or failure of a dental practice, for example, is ultimately determined by the quality of the relationships created among the patients, staff, and colleagues. Although clinical skills and business systems are important, they can never reverse the damage from misunderstandings, confusion, or unresolved conflicts.

Sadly, the chances of returning a damaged relationship to a healthy, functioning one are at best unpredictable, particularly when the players are unskilled. Too often, people simply move on without understanding or addressing the issues that fracture their ability to work well together. That explains, in part, the high staff turnover dentistry experiences as well as the degree to which patients recycle from one practice to another.

Restoring relationships requires effort and a willingness to participate in a process of discovery. Discovery involves examining the course of events, identifying behavior patterns, determining what part each person played, and reviewing the motives of each participant. This is a worthy exercise no matter what the outcome. If each person comes away with an understanding of how he or she contributed to the damage, it will decrease the likelihood of repeating the same mistakes.

This series of articles is based on the principle that communication is the lifeblood of every relationship. The law of change says, "Things do not stay the same. If they don't get better, they get worse." So it is with relationships. With effective communication, the relationship grows. When communication is ineffective, guarded, or hostile, the opposite happens. When there is no communication, the relationship will end. In this installment, I have assembled a comprehensive list of attitudes, behaviors, and communication mistakes that underlie most damaged relationships. The intent is to help each of you review your current situations and prepare you for healthier relationships in the future.

Relationships are rarely damaged intentionally. No one makes a conscious decision to trash a friendship or make a working relationship impossible. Relationships simply deteriorate over time from lack of attention, poor choices, and failing to deal with issues early. Human behavior is complex, yet understandable because people act in predictable ways. However, these patterns are not always apparent. As you consider each of these elements, keep yourself open to patterns that may be part of your life and your responses to others.

Judging people rather than actions.
Judging others is a mindset problem and it happens frequently. When people fail to meet our expectations, it confuses the distinction between the person and the behavior. When we judge others and then label them on the basis of a few actions, it over-personalizes the situation and decreases the likelihood of resolution. The distinction is very important and not merely a matter of semantics.

Julie does not have lunch with the rest of the staff. That is a behavior. The statement, "Julie does not have lunch with the rest of the staff" is a description of her behavior. "Julie is aloof because she does not have lunch with the rest of the staff" is a judgment of Julie based on her behavior; it's unfair as well as possibly inaccurate. Maybe Julie doesn't have lunch with the rest of the staff because she eats special foods. Maybe she needs to tend to personal business, or take an emotional siesta during the lunch break. The only way you will know why Julie chooses to not have lunch with the rest of the staff is to ask her — without judgment. It is inappropriate for anyone to suggest why Julie does anything.

This damage factor is probably the single most insidious cause of relationship breakdown, in part because it is so prevalent in our society. Thus, becoming aware of how, when, and under what conditions you engage in this behavior is a major step in preparing yourself for healthier relationships.

People get defensive when they are judged, which thwarts any possibility of a healthy discussion. When people are defensive, they can't listen. Their energy is directed toward self-protection and mental preparation for what might come next. Judgments also escalate the rhetoric and intensify feelings, thus skewing the emotions out of perspective. And finally, judgments are hurtful because they suggest an intention to hurt.

The first item on your checklist, then, is to review any tendency you may have to confuse an event with a person's character.

Avoiding, ignoring, or delaying
Each of these is a tactical problem that, under almost any circumstance, will make a situation more difficult to address. Rarely do problems go away on their own; the passage of time only hardens the circumstances and blurs the issues. Every problem in a relationship begins as a single — usually minor — event. Most people tend to shrug off minor problems. A second, similar event compounds the situation; a third trebles it and so on until the situation escalates beyond a simple solution. A minor problem becomes a major one requiring serious resolution, which takes more courage than most people possess.

A new employee comes to work dressed provocatively. Rather than embarrass her, you decide to let it go, hoping that she will see how others are dressed and take the hint. Six weeks later, she is still dressing the same, but you have built six weeks worth of aggravation over her inability to see the dress code you have been modeling. When you finally address the situation, your irritation is unmistakable. Your employee, on the other hand, is bewildered. Your silence implied to her that everything was just fine. The embarrassment you hoped to avoid by delaying appropriate feedback is unavoidable, for it becomes clear to her that you have disapproved for the past six weeks. You are lucky if your discussion results in anything other than her tears.

The second item on your checklist, therefore, is to take an inventory of those issues you repeatedly avoid with your co-workers and in other relationships. Ask yourself if they have become easier or harder to address as you ignore them. Ask yourself if time has made it more difficult to keep the relationship intact once you raise the issue. And finally, ask yourself when you will broach them.

Triangulation
Another form of delaying, triangulation, occurs when one person, who is in conflict with another, takes the issue to a third person. Triangulation is nothing more than ganging up. You can try to justify it in many ways. "I just want to know if I'm seeing everything," or "Am I the only one who is bothered by this," or even, "I want to run something by you to make sure I'm saying it right before I go to him." These rationales rarely work. Taking an issue to someone other than the person you are in conflict with will set up the relationship for failure.

One of your co-workers, Margaret, asks if there is any money missing from your purse. You check and tell her, "no." Margaret then confides that she thinks Susan has taken some money from her, and tells you to keep an eye out. Susan has no idea that the two of you are now formally conspiring against her. Maybe she's taken the money; maybe she hasn't. At this point, you can't act as if nothing has changed between you and Susan, for it has. You have been infected with Margaret's suspicions through triangulation. From now on, you will be suspicious of Susan, even though you have no evidence. You have only Margaret's suspicion. This is horribly cruel — and completely unfair.

Susan deserves the chance to address the issues. Deliberately withholding information from her is the same as lying; furthermore, if a person must resort to guessing about issues, they will likely guess incorrectly.

Triangulation exacerbates everything it touches. Simple matters get blown out of proportion as more peripheral people become part of the buzz. If you really want to hurt someone's feelings, put them squarely on the defensive, and dramatically limit the possibility of resolving an issue, triangulation is the tool to use.

The third item on your checklist is to review all of the clandestine conversations you have had with a third party without revealing the nature of those discussions with the person in question. This kind of cleanup work should begin right away.

Representing others
Once triangulation has occurred, some people have difficulty keeping their knowledge of a situation secret. When one person attempts to represent an issue that isn't hers, the result is usually disastrous.

Barbara is the "mother hen" in the practice. Because Kelly has difficulty raising issues, she often grouses to Barbara, knowing that she will raise the issue in the next staff meeting. This method keeps Kelly clean from all that messy business. At a recent meeting, Barbara introduced the topic, with few details. Most team members were confused about what she was trying to convey. But Barbara can't be more precise because it isn't her issue In a vain attempt to encourage Kelly to speak, Barbara, through her frustration, announces to the entire room, "Well, I'm not the only one who has this problem." Kelly, as predicted, sits silently, as the limb on which Barbara is precariously perched begins to snap.

This tactic sets the rest of the group on edge. Who knows what's been said? Why didn't I know? Is it about me? Once identified, the intended target will be defensive. This inappropriate tactic, along with its partner, triangulation, profoundly damages trust.

Review instances of inappropriate representation by others. If you discover a pattern, your challenge is to learn how to encourage others to raise their own issues and avoid triangulation.

Playing hurtful games
This damaging tactic can take on many forms, each problematic.

Sandwiching negative comments between positive ones. Once you begin with "You know, Jodie, there's a lot you're doing well, but ... ." Jodie begins to steel herself for the whammy and doesn't hear the rest. The compliment following the zinger won't be heard and feels more like a patronizing comment that a sincere observation.

Minimizing your comments. So you finally got the courage to lay it all out there. Bravo. But you are so uncomfortable that you are compelled to relieve the tension by adding, "Well, I know I'm not perfect either," or "We all make mistakes." Don't be surprised if those comments prompt an even more angry response, for they can sound highly insulting and patronizing.

Attempting to cushion the message before delivering it. "I know you're not going to like what I have to say" is certain to trigger a negative response. If you have something to say, say it. You don't get to vote about whether the person likes hearing it or not.

Comments like these also rob an individual of the right to formulate a response. It is presumptuous and rude to try to manage everything in the conversation; avoid it at all times.

These games can be more damaging to the relationship than the content of the primary message. So, please now add to your personal inventory checklist a review of your approaches to delivering legitimate messages. If you discover a tendency to incorporate any of these behaviors, you may want to begin replacing them with healthier habits.

These relationship damagers are all within your control. You can choose to eliminate them — or continue with the status quo. Each tactic can almost single-handedly determine how your relationships will progress.

Working relationships are too important to be left to chance. I encourage you to complete the personal inventory. Then, approach each relationship knowing that how you speak to your partners will form a healthy foundation for successful collaboration.


Guided Personal Exercise

This month, I've compiled a list of "dos" and "don'ts" to supplement the inventory in the body of the article. Dentists and teams should work through each of these items and talk openly about giving feedback.

When giving feedback, DO:

  • Be specific with details
  • Be specific in describing behavior, events, and feelings
  • Acknowledge the behavior's impact on you
  • Pay attention to your body language ... chill out!
  • Use verbatim quotes, but ask about intent of the message
  • Be timely
  • Give feedback succinctly, then stop; let the other person speak
  • Focus on a single message rather than using the event to bombard
  • Be sensitive to the emotional impact of your message

When giving feedback, DON'T:

  • Be smug, bossy, or arrogant
  • "Spin"
  • Assume or make up elements
  • Accuse
  • Pass along vague feedback or conspiratorial information
  • Give advice unless asked
  • Psychoanalyze
  • Generalize or exaggerate

To learn more about how you and your team can develop stronger and more effective communication skills, call Sandy Roth at (800) 848-8326, or send her an email at sandy@prosynergy.com to request a catalog of learning resources.

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