So much rides on communication. But when tensions rise or when people aren’t feeling understood, a dialog can turn into two monologues, with neither side listening to the other.
That’s when it’s time to open your communication tool box. The Relationship Ladder is a tool developed by the Leadership Development staff that melts tension and brings about effective, healthy communication. Anyone involved in customer service or who works at a place where conflict or emotions can rise will benefit from studying and practicing this tool.
Like any tool, you won’t need to use the Ladder for every situation. Just like you wouldn’t use a pipe wrench when you should use an Allen wrench, the Relationship Ladder isn’t needed except in the following situations:
- When tensions are high,
- When the other person doesn’t feel understood,
- When you don’t feel understood.
In other words, when communication is flowing smoothly, just let the trust levels flow and enjoy the synergy. But when the conditions call for opening your tool box, the following is the “instruction manual” for how the Relationship Ladder works. Note that each of the five steps contains an “action” word – something you must DO.
Step 1. Focus on the Other Person.
People want to know that their thoughts and viewpoints are important. This critical first step means focusing on the person’s mental, emotional, and physical state. It’s empathic listening, and the action word is FOCUS. In your mind, try to sum up in just a few words what the person is thinking or feeling.
Step 2. Communicate Understanding.
This step ensures the other person feels HEARD. The action word is COMMUNICATE. You may not agree with the other person’s viewpoint, but whether you agree or disagree is not the issue – at least not at this point in the process. The most important thing to do is remain criticism-free and simply restate the other person’s point of view …the words that you came up with in Step 1… even if they are 180 degrees out from your perspective. This is probably the most difficult step. It requires you to be objective and not take anything personally.
Step 3. Look for Trust.
Nobody likes to be mocked or ridiculed – they want to feel safe! By communicating that you understand (Step 2) in a non-judgmental way, you’re creating a safe environment. It’s extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) to move forward without some level of trust. When you create an environment that is free of criticism, ridicule, mocking, etc., the other person is more likely to trust you. Your action word here is LOOK, because it’s not likely someone will come out and say “Gee, I’m beginning to trust you.” You have to look for it. Signs of trust are usually observed through relaxed body language and voice tone. Without trust, moving ahead is like building your house on sinking sand. Building trust is a pivotal step – almost like a gate. You probably won’t get much forward progress unless you have it.
Step 4. Gently Discover the Truth.
After you have a foundation of trust you can get to the heart of the matter; the truth of what’s going on. Your action word is DISCOVER, but be careful. The truth sometimes hurts, so make sure you find it gently. The “truth” of a situation may be (but is not limited to):
- what needs to be done (sometimes by both parties),
- why something cannot be done, or
- what happened in the past to cause the present situation.
A good approach is to ask questions, but be aware that the truth can raise emotions again. If that happens, you’ll need to re-establish the foundation of trust by repeating steps one through three!
Step 5. Establish Hope.
Everything up to this point has involved the past. This step moves us into the future, because hope usually involves finding a solution to a problem. The action word is ESTABLISH, which requires thought on your part. It’s best if the solution is mutually agreed upon and if you acknowledge the benefits that will happen if the solution is enacted.
These five steps, used in this order, provide a “best practices” path to effective, healthy communications. They don’t come naturally—you have to practice the steps and work on them before you need them. But this is a powerful tool that works every time I’ve seen it used. Remember, you don’t have to use it all the time, but when emotions are high or someone is not feeling understood, it’s probably the best tool you can have.