Principles of Supportive Communication
Excerpted from Whetton, D.A. & Cameron, K.S. Developing Management Skills, 4th Edition. Reading: Addison Wesley, 1998.

1. Supportive Communication is problem-oriented, not person-oriented.

Problem-oriented communication focuses on problems and solutions rather than on personal traits. Person-oriented communication focuses on the characteristics of the individual, not the event. Problem-oriented communication is useful even when personal appraisals are called for because it focuses on behaviors and events, whereas person-oriented communication can send the message that the individual is inadequate. Statements such as "you are dictatorial" and "you are insensitive" describe the person, while "I am not involved in decisions" and "we don't seem to see things the same way" describe problems. Imputing motives is person-oriented ("It's because you want to control other people"), whereas describing overt behaviors is problem-oriented ("You made several sarcastic comments in the meeting today").

2. Supportive communication is based on congruence, not incongruence.

Rogers (1961) argues that the best interpersonal communications, and the best relationships, are based on congruence, that is, exactly matching the communication, verbally and nonverbally, to what an individual is thinking and feeling. One kind of incongruence is a mismatch between what one is experiencing and what one is aware of. For example, an individual may not even be aware that he or she is experiencing anger toward another person, even though the anger is really present. A second kind of incongruence, and the one most closely related to supportive communication, is a mismatch between what one feels and what one communicates. For example, an individual may be aware of a feeling of anger but deny having that feeling. Congruence relates to matching the content of one's words to your manner and tone of voice. "What a nice day" can mean the opposite if muttered sarcastically. "I'm only concerned for your welfare" can mean the opposite if said without sincerity, especially if the history of the relationship suggests otherwise.

3. Supportive communication is descriptive, not evaluative.

Evaluative communication makes a judgment or places a label on other individuals or their behavior: "You are doing it wrong," "You are incompetent." Such evaluation generally makes the other person feel under attack and respond defensively. Probable responses are, "I'm not doing it wrong," or "I am as competent as you are." Arguments, bad feelings, and a weakening of the interpersonal relationship result. An alternative to evaluation is descriptive communication. Descriptive communication reduces the tendency to evaluate and perpetuate a defensive interaction. It involves three steps:

Step 1: Describe objectively the event, behavior, or circumstance.

Example: "Three clients have complained to me this month that you have not responded to their requests."

Step 2: Focus on the behavior and your reaction, not the other person's attributes.

Example: "I'm worried because each client has threatened to go elsewhere if we aren't more responsive."

Step 3: Focus on solutions.

Example: "We need both to win back their confidence and to show them you are responsive. For example you could do a free analysis of their systems."

4. Supportive communication validates rather than invalidates individuals.

Communication that is invalidating arouses negative feelings about self-worth, identity, and relatedness to others. It denies the presence, uniqueness, or importance of other individuals. Communication that is superiority oriented gives the impression that the communicator is informed while the others are ignorant, adequate while others are inadequate, competent while others are incompetent, or powerful while others are impotent. It creates a barrier between the communicator and those to whom the message is sent. Indifference is communicated when the other person's existence or importance is not acknowledged. A person may do this by using silence, by making no verbal response to the other's statements, by avoiding eye contact or any facial expression, by interrupting the other person frequently, by using impersonal words ("one should not" instead of "you should not"). The communicator appears not to care about the other person and gives the impression of being impervious to the other person's feelings or perspectives. Imperviousness means that the communicator does not acknowledge the feelings or opinions of the other person. They are either labeled illegitimate -- "You shouldn't feel that way" or "Your opinion is incorrect" -- or they are labeled as naïve -- "You don't understand," "You've been misinformed," or (worse yet) "Your opinion in uninformed."

Validating communication helps people feel recognized, understood, accepted and valued. It is respectful where others are treated as worthwhile, competent, and insightful and emphasizes joint problem solving rather than a superior position. It is flexible, it means communicating genuine humility -- not self-abasement or weakness -- and openness to new insight. It involves two-way communication where others are asked questions and given "air time" to express their opinions. It identifies areas of agreement before areas of disagreement, acknowledges important points of the other person before trivial ones, provides complements before criticisms, advantages before disadvantages.

5. Supportive communication is specific (useful), not global (useless).

Specific statements avoid extremes and absolutes: "You have no consideration for others feelings," " You either do what I say or I'll fire you." Extreme and either-or statements deny alternatives. The possible responses of the recipient of the communication are severely constrained. To contradict or deny it generally leads to defensiveness and arguments. In general, the more specific a statement is, the more useful it is. For example, the statement "You have trouble managing your time" is too general to be useful, whereas "You spent an hour scheduling meetings today when that could have been done by your assistant" provides specific information that can serve as a basis for behavioral change. "Your communication needs to improve" is not nearly as useful as a more specific "In this role play, you used evaluative statements 60 percent of the time and descriptive statements 10 percent of the time."

6. Supportive communication is conjunctive, not disjunctive.

Conjunctive communication is joined to previous messages in some way. It flows smoothly. Disjunctive communication is disconnected from what was stated before. Communication can be disjunctive in three ways. First, there can be a lack of equal opportunity to speak such as when one interrupts another or dominates "air time." Second, extended pauses are disjunctive. Third, topic control can be disjointed such as when one person decides unilaterally what the next topic of conversation may be (as opposed to having it decided bilaterally). A communicator's statement or question is most conjunctive when it refers to an immediately preceding statement; It is disjunctive when it refers to nothing that has been said or that the parties share in common.

7. Supportive communication is owned, not disowned.

Taking responsibility for one's statements and acknowledging that the source of the ideas is oneself and not another person or group is owning communication. Using first person words such as "I," "me," "mine," indicates owning communication. Disowning communication is suggested by use of third-person or first-person-plural words: "We think," "They said," or "One might say." Disowned communication is attributed to an unknown person, group, or external source (e.g., "Lots of people think"). The communicator avoids taking responsibility for the message and therefore avoids investing in the interaction. This conveys the message that the communicator is aloof or uncaring about the receiver or is not confident enough in the ideas expressed to take responsibility for them.

8. Supportive communication requires listening, not one-way message delivery.

The previous seven attributes of supportive communication focus on message delivery. Listening and responding effectively to someone else's statements is at least as important as delivering supportive messages. People do not know that they are being listened to unless the listener makes some type of response. In general there are four types of response that range on a continuum from most directive and closed to most nondirective and open. Closed responses eliminate discussion of topics and provide direction to individuals. Open responses, allow the communicator, not the listener, to control the topic of conversation. The four types of responses are:

An advising response provides direction, evaluation, personal opinion, or instructions. Such responses imposes on the communicator the point of view of the listener, and it creates listener control over the topic of conversation.

A deflecting response switches the focus from the communicator's problem to one selected by the listener. The listener changes the subject.

A probing response asks a question about what the communicator just said or about a topic selected by the listener. The intent of the probe is to acquire additional information, to help the communicator say more about the topic, or to help the listener foster more appropriate responses. Four types of probes can be used: elaboration probe (e.g., "Can you tell me more about that?"); clarification probe (e.g., "What do you mean by that?"); repetition probe (e.g., "Once again, what do you think about that?"); reflective probe (e.g., "You say you are discouraged?").

A reflecting response mirrors back to the communicator the message that was heard and communicates understanding and acceptance of the person. Reflecting the message in different words (paraphrasing) allows the speaker to feel listened to, understood, and free to explore the topic in more depth.

Open responses (reflecting) are generally useful during early stages of discussion.

Closed responses (advising) are generally useful during later stages of discussion, or when they are requested by the communicator, or when one is in position to offer direction (e.g., an expert).

 

References

Rogers, C.W. 1961. On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.