The BLOG: Voices

Four steps to reduce relationship tension and increase trust

The tension was heavy in a recent meeting. The participants had competing agendas, different personalities and diverse perspectives. Being privy to side conversations before the meeting, I knew that they were making judgments about each other. Instead of coming together as “we,” they were defending and protecting the “me.”

In his classic book “Nonviolent Communication,” Dr. Marshall Rosenberg suggests that this behavior isn’t so unusual:

Most of us grew up speaking a language that encourages us to label, compare, demand, and pronounce judgments rather than to be aware of what we are feeling and needing…. [For example,] if my colleague is more concerned about details than I am, he is “picky and compulsive.” On the other hand, if I am more concerned about details than he is, he is “sloppy and disorganized….”

When we express our values and needs in this form, we increase defensiveness and resistance among the very people whose behaviors are of concern to us. Or, if people do agree to act in harmony with our values, they will likely do so out of fear, guilt, or shame because they concur with our analysis of their wrongness.

In the book, Dr. Rosenberg provides a four-step blueprint to move beyond defensiveness and judgments to greater trust and alignment. I love his recommendations for openly discussing these areas following this specific sequence:

1) Observation. The first step is to discuss the concrete actions we observe that affect our well-being. This needs to be done with no evaluation. The Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti said that observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence.

This is much more difficult than it sounds. It’s not an observation to say, “John you are complaining in this meeting.” That’s an evaluation. An observation would be to say, “John you’ve spoken a few times in this meeting, and each time you’ve talked about people who have treated you in a way that you didn’t like.” Observation is fact, not opinion.

2) Feelings. Next, discuss the feelings you have in relation to what you observe. Too often people think that they are communicating feelings when they are really communicating a thought or opinion. For instance, “I feel like a failure,” or “I feel like you’re being disrespectful” are not actually describing feelings.

Feelings are emotions, like frustration, anxiety, embarrassment and restlessness. Feelings can’t be argued; they’re a window into who we really are. Some people are uncomfortable expressing feelings because of the risk that someone might judge, manipulate or hurt them for being vulnerable. We need to recognize, though, that how we feel really has nothing to do with our competence. Just because I feel “scared,” it doesn’t mean that you can determine whether or not I’m capable.

3) Needs. Connecting to feelings, it’s important to state the needs, values or desires that created your feelings. Because I’m a people-pleaser by nature, this is the hardest step for me. I’m wired to be self-sufficient and view statements of need as selfish. But the fact is that every human being has needs—to be respected, appreciated, cared for, etc. And the other fact is that it’s normal to periodically have need deficits.

Dr. Rosenberg says that needs are often most appropriately expressed following the word “because” after we’ve explained how we feel. For instance, I might say, “I’m feeling worried because it’s important to me that we have team unity.” It would not be expressing a need to say, “I’m feeling worried because you are damaging our team unity.” Notice the difference? The second example is really a criticism disguised as a need.

4) Requests. Finally, it’s helpful to discuss the concrete actions that you desire in order to enrich your life. Requests need to be made in helpful ways that build trust. For instance, they should be specific, clear and direct. They should state what you are requesting rather than what you are not. And requests should be sincere asks of someone, not demands or threats. This allows others to choose freely and engage without resentment. Rather than saying, “So what you need to do is…” you might say, “I would like you to consider doing this….”

It’s not easy for me to follow these steps. But when I do, I experience more freedom and energy in my relationships.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, in this regard, relationships are no different from playing a sport or building a house: following a blueprint leads to more successful outcomes.

What meetings and relationships are you in that could have less tension and more trust?

Matt Norman

Matt Norman

Matt Norman is president of Norman & Associates, which is the largest provider of Dale Carnegie Training programs in North America. He is the author of several articles published by Dale Carnegie Training and Training Magazine on organizational effectiveness and personal growth. He blogs weekly at