The Communication Process: Make the conversation bigger to deal with ‘crazy makers’


“One of my co-workers delights in starting arguments with me. She has journalism experience and used to work as an editor. She enjoys pointing out grammar mistakes in my writing. She even corrects me when I say the wrong word. This nitpicking carries over to projects we work on. Her way is always right; mine is always wrong. She always knows what to do; my idea would never work.  She criticizes, criticizes, criticizes! I’d drop dead if she’d say anything positive about my efforts! What can I do to get this woman off my back?”

This issue is one I am sure resonates with most everyone. We all have people in our lives, at home and at work, who seem to do a great job of pushing our “hot buttons.” Over the years, I have even coined a phrase for these kinds of people who make us crazy. I call them “crazy makers!” In this column I will explore a model of communication as a tool to more effectively navigate the choppy waters caused by crazy makers.

More than two decades ago, Roger Fisher and William Ury, researchers with the Negotiation Project at Harvard University, wrote an influential book titled “Getting to Yes.” In it, they outlined, using case studies involving small (e.g., person-person) to large (e.g., nation-nation) conflicts, that the key to navigating conflict successfully is to avoid falling into the trap of personal attacks or personal-level discussions. Rather than attack personally, they suggested, the better approach is to dig more deeply to identify underlying principles, values and outcomes that both parties agree on. With a common “target” so specified, the parties then are able to work together collaboratively toward consensus so both get what they want. “Win-win” is always the goal in these kinds of explorations.

So, what are the implications of “getting to yes” for the reader and the issue described in the question? This is where the Communication Process accompanying this column comes in (see figure). Just how does someone “make the conversation bigger” by moving beyond personal issues to underlying principles? The Communication Process provides a practical perspective for doing so, as follows.

First, when Employee A is talking with Employee B, each of them has the opportunity to send messages and offer feedback. How well is active listening employed along the way, for example, in which each person restates what he or she is hearing from the other party?  

Second, to what extent is each communicator sensitive to the “perceptual lens” from which he or she operates? How aware is he or she of the impact his or her motives, values, interests, attitudes, past experiences, current expectations, etc. have on the communication exchange?

Third, what are the role expectations that are underlying how and why the communication is unfolding as it is? By seeking to better understand the pressures and expectations associated with being in “that role” it might be possible to better communicate from “this role.” This is analogous to walking in the other person’s shoes. Sometimes the other person is acting the way he or she is because of what he or she is required to do as part of the role that is occupied. It is not personal; it is business.

Fourth, presupposing the two communicators work in close proximity with one another, what norms permeate the work area? What are the implicit and explicit behavioral prescriptions that employees are expected to fulfill? Sometimes norms can be functional, and sometimes they can be dysfunctional. A norm that implies “people who work in that department are dummies and we treat them as such” would be an example of a dysfunctional norm. This is, of course, how inter-group conflict and inefficiency is generated (i.e., “We would be a lot better off if Shipping would only get its act together… what a bunch of incompetents!”).

Fifth, what kind of organizational culture exists? What has the organization specified regarding “the way we do things around here” in areas such as purpose, goals, processes, performance measures, corrective mechanisms, language, boundaries, power and status, etc.?

So, what is the implication of this model I have outlined? The implication is that the next time the reader finds her colleague poking a communication “stick” in her eye, the reader should try to make the conversation bigger by being sensitive to the communication context. The reader should help her colleague to do the same. The goal should be to “talk about the way they talk” in order to establish the “common ground” between them. What is it they both seek in this communication exchange? One way to do this is to “CRIB,” as follows:

  • Commit to seek mutual purpose (i.e., agree to agree).
  • Recognize the purpose behind the strategy (i.e., do not equate what you are asking for with what you want).
  • Invent a mutual purpose (i.e., a higher level/more encompassing goal).
  • Brainstorm new strategies.

There is an old story about three Englishmen riding on a bus. The bus stops. The first man says, “I say there, is this Wembley?” “No,” says the second man, “this is Thursday.” “So am I,” says the third, “let’s have a drink!” Moral: All too often we hear only what we want to hear! To avoid falling into that trap and having each conversation go as poorly as the last one, put into practice some of the principles outlined in this column.

Daniel A. Schroeder, Ph.D., is president of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. ( He can be reached at (262) 827-1901 or

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