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Win/Win Communication, By Cathy Bolger, PhD

Quality interactions between people make a difference in our lives every single day. Indeed, research studies support the importance of the skill of positive interpersonal relationships. For instance, a study out of Stanford University found that of 10,000 people who were let go from a job, more than 90% were fired for interpersonal reasons. A Carnegie Mellon study indicated that 85% of the reason a person gets and keeps a job is due to interpersonal skills, with only 15% counting for technical competence. Since we know interpersonal skills can be learned, this supports a substantial opportunity for training and coaching. Emotional intelligence can be increased through improved self-awareness skills, optimistic thinking, social skills, and emotional control and flexibility.

I have recently revised one of my favorite trainings, Win/Win Communication. I base the class outline on the concept represented in the book "People Skills" by Robert Bolton. In it, he invites us to visualize a triangle divided horizontally into thirds. The lower third includes listening and inquiry skills. The middle third includes assertiveness skills, appropriately balancing your needs with those of others. The top third includes conflict management and collaboration skills.

Starting with the base of the triangle, I teach people to ‘listen to learn’ rather than ‘talk to persuade.’ When listening to learn, a different point of view triggers an opening for a new or wider perspective, rather than a signal to defend what you previously thought or believed.

I have found it very important that people understand that they will get their point across better if they try to understand the other person’s point of view first. According to Fisher and Ury in Getting to the Yes, "People listen better if they feel that you have understood them. They tend to think that those who understand them are intelligent and sympathetic people whose own opinions may be worth listening to." (Fisher and Ury, p. 52). In other words, if you want the other person to listen to you, "understand the other person’s story well enough to see how their conclusions make sense within it." (Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton and Heen, p. 30). You may even learn something.

In addition, I have noticed many people haven’t mastered the skill of asking questions, listening to the answers, and then finding some common ground. Even if they have some skill at it, performance diminishes in stressful situations. To solidify gains, I have the class practice these skills in dyads and choose a topic of disagreement, such as the death penalty. One person will present one side of the argument. The other person will listen without interrupting, and then summarize what was said. The second person will then present the other side of the argument, following the same format. They then work together to find a common goal or common ground. For instance, with the example of the death penalty, the common ground might be "we both agree innocent people should not be put to death." These are the first two steps to collaboration—summarizing what was said and finding common ground.

During the middle section of the class, I show the amusing and informative video, "Straight Talking, the Art of Assertiveness," starring John Clease (videoarts.com). Clease covers the importance of balancing your needs with those of others, speaking up when you disagree, as well as the importance of determining your bottom line and sticking to it. Lastly, he underscores the importance of communicating as equals, in an adult-to-adult manner.

The final third of the class is spent practicing collaboration—more listening to learn/summarizing and finding common ground, with the addition of practicing brainstorming options. "Time spent brainstorming together is surely among the best spent time in negotiation." (Fisher and Ury, p. 67). They continue, "Skill at inventing options is one of the most useful assets a negotiator can have." (Fisher and Ury, p. 58)

Practicing these three skills repeatedly in class solidifies students’ capacity for each and allows for initial integration. They can then walk away with awareness that a win/win relationship inevitably involves one of the following options:

  • giving in
  • standing your ground
  • meeting half way
  • creative inventing, or
  • searching for that third alternative that meets both people’s needs
All are talents that make a difference in relationships, and all can be learned.

Browse Amazon Books Bolton, Robert. People Skills. Simon & Schuster, 1979.

Fisher, Roger, and William Ury. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Penguin Books, 1983.

Kravitz, Michael S. and Susan D. Schubert, Emotional Intelligence Works: Developing "People Smart" Strategies

Stone, Douglas, Patton, Bruce, and Sheila Heen. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most. Penguin Books, 1999.

Cathy Bolger has designed and delivered Conflict Resolution training for over a decade. She also coaches individual managers on their conflict resolution skills. In addition, Dr. Bolger has written several articles for professional publications on Conflict Management. She is also a trained mediator, having received her training at the San Diego Mediation Center.Cathy Bolger is a San Diego-based consultant who has designed and delivered Conflict Resolution training for over a decade.

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