Giraffes barely make noise (or so my son told me after zoo day at school) so when I first read about “giraffe language,” I was intrigued. Coined by Marshall Rosenberg, a conflict resolution expert, giraffe language is named for the mammal with the biggest heart, taking the communicator out of the trees so they can see the whole forest. It is intended to address conflict without accusations, assumptions and attacks, and make good solutions more likely. We often “imply wrongness” in people who behave in a ways we don’t like. Giraffe language removes the idea that one person is going to win and allows us to have a conversation that focuses on the real problems instead that perceived wrongness.
While Rosenberg used it primarily to mediate violent international conflicts, it’s a useful tool in any setting when unresolved tension has come to a boiling point. If a work tension has come to the point where you are primed for it whenever you see a co-worker with whom you clash, it’s important to address it in a meaningful way. Alexander Kjerulf, a renowned speaker on work and happiness, has taken the original steps of giraffe language and adapted them for business use.
If you have an entrenched work conflict, a quick conversation at your desk or by email isn’t sufficient. So make it official. Invite the person you need to have this conversation with to meet with enough time to actually talk. Do it in a conference room or a coffee shop, somewhere neutral. As Kjerulf points out, this can actually be hardest part of the whole process. So just take a deep breath and do it. While the initial step feels like the hardest, you can’t just wing it from here. We’ve all been the brunt of conversations that start out with an accusation, “how come you always do this thing I don’t like?” We’re immediately defensive and the conversation ends up being unconstructive and uncomfortable. So instead of going in nervous and accidentally doing the same thing to someone else, take some notes. Yes, I know I’m always suggesting writing things down for reference in this blog, but it really works. One, it means you’ve prepared for the event and two, it means you don’t forget what you want to say.
Start by observing and identifying what you see in neutral, objective terms. This is about what is actually happening (on the part of both of you) and not what motives you ascribe to the behavior. Be as objective as possible. “You always hate my great ideas” is neither objective nor factual. Start only about what you observe, “I notice at meetings that we get very critical of each other. Last week when you suggested a new sales initiative, I immediately pointed out all the problems with it, even though it was a good idea. We seem to be in this dynamic more and more often.”
Once you’re done with your opening ask if the other person agrees and if they have anything to add. If they don’t, that’s okay. If they do, listen without speaking or interrupting.
Next, apologize for your part in the conflict. It is very rare that a conflict is so one-sided that there’s nothing at all to apologize for. Even if you feel like you didn’t create the situation, did you do anything to sustain it? Taking responsibility for your part in the situation isn’t accepting the entire blame it’s about moving forward.
Also take a moment to appreciate the other person and let them know why you think the conflict is worth resolving. “Even though we often come at a problem from very different places, your contributions help me see things in a way I never would alone.” Or, “Your creativity makes our group’s work product really stand out.” (When you’re thinking about the step before the conversation, if you find there’s nothing you can think of to say, it’s likely you’re not ready to solve this conflict without outside help.)
Once you’ve set up this framework, you can really get to the resolution. Next, talk about what the consequences of this conflict have been. Outlining them helps creates an ‘outside’ perspective so that everyone can see why the conflict needs to be resolved. Are deadlines being missed? Are other people asking about your working relationship? Are people in meetings with both of you not including you in the conversation? Is it causing anxiety? Again, when you’re done ask if the other person agrees or has anything to add.
What is it you want from this conversation and moving into the future of your relationship? Tell them. “I’d like for us to listen to each other more.” or “I’d like to be able to work together, adding to each other’s ideas instead of just rejecting them.” And, of course, ask what they want. You both need to agree to a goal so that it can be reached.
And lastly, ask for one specific action that is immediately do-able. “At the next sales meeting, before disagreeing with an idea the other one has, let’s start by saying what’s good about it before making suggestions about how it could change. Then we can check in after the meeting. How does that sound?” The more concrete the action, the more likely it is you’ll both take steps toward the resolution.
Conflict at work is inevitable. While most conflicts are easily solved, every so often you’ll end up in one that takes an extra few steps. As long as you are willing to address it, there’s always a way forward.