The Path To The Three A’s

The Path to the Three A’s to

                      Better Relationships

by Dr. Carolyn C. Shadle

Carolyn ShadleI’d like to describe for you the path to the three A’s – the pathway that I took to discover the skills that can build better relationships.

While preparing for a career (my first) in religious education, I became interested in what influenced people to be bonded with their religious communities, and I found interpersonal communication to be instrumental to that affiliation.  Also, during this period of study, I took a course in “The Family” in hopes of learning whether there was a parenting style that embodied the concept of “unconditional love” or that was unique to one’s faith choice.  I didn’t find one.

But then, soon after my daughter was born, I took the first course offered in Buffalo, NY by Gordon Training International.  It was Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training.  That was around 1970. Gordon felt that parents should be able to apply the concepts of psychologist Carl Rogers, as he did, and listen to their children, as he did. This was as close to the implementation of “unconditional love” as I’d seen. That course turned out to be a pivotal and transforming experience for me.

I learned the power of listening for feelings, as well as content, and even learned to feel the feelings.  As I raised two daughters, it was a skill that enabled me to avoid a lot of parent-child battles.

I addressed my new role, as parent, as one would prepare for a new career and supplemented my learning from Thomas Gordon’s writings by reading a host of other books.  Some that influenced me were multiple works based on Alfred Adler’s psychology by Rudolf Dreikurs and Don Dinkmeyer, How to Talk So Children with Listen and How to Listen So Children Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, works by Marshall Rosenberg of the Center for Non-Violent Communication, Raising Your Child Not By Force But By Love, by Sidney Craig, and various books by Haim Ginott. I even read works by James Dobson to understand contrasting approaches.

I was eager to share what I was learning, so I began teaching workshops and classes, including a 30-hour, 10-week course based on a combination of my learnings. It was offered through churches, school districts and pediatricians (who got discipline questions from parents but not the time or expertise to address them). When parents completed the course and told me that they needed follow-up, I began a newsletter.  It was a wonderful way for me to share the things I was continuing to learn and how I applied my findings with my family.  In time, the newsletter took on a life of its own. For 15 years it was published all over the English-speaking world, and led me to travel with my workshops throughout the United States and Australia and New Zealand.

Parents returned to class with wonderful stories of how the communication skills we discussed “worked.”  They found their lives transformed, as I had.  Then one of the fathers told me that it “worked” in his office, and soon I was invited to teach a variation of my course for workplaces and organizations – small businesses, large corporations, school boards, non-profit boards and retreats.

The power of the course was reaffirmed for me during a class I taught at Nabisco when a room full of manufacturing supervisors were debating the effectiveness of the skills I was teaching.  One man said, “Look, I just tell them what they need to do, and, if they don’t get it, I tell them again.  That’s what supervisors do.”  One of his classmates, said, “And is it working?”  To which the first man replied, “No, but it did when I was coming up.”  Whereupon the second man returned, “That’s why you have to listen to her.  The old way doesn’t work anymore!”

I was interested in what “worked.”  I was also interested in how close we could come in expressing “unconditional love” when building relationships.

Eager to expand my knowledge of communication, and to add to my understanding of communication in organizations, I completed the PhD program at The State University of New York at Buffalo.  Strangely, in the years since I was awarded the PhD my training hasn’t changed much, only now I can say with authority, “Research shows that….”

Armed with the PhD degree, I found myself on a new career track  – this one in academia – sometimes providing training in communication, more often simply using the communication skills I’d learned.  While Associate Dean for Professional Development at the University of Denver’s Daniels School of Business, I had the privilege of oversee the Daniels Leadership Institute and our offering of  a three-week program entitled Emerging Leaders, based on The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner.  Many of their “rules” for leaders, such as “model the way”, “encourage the heart,” and “enable others to act,” echoed what I’d been teaching in my communication courses.

During my 25 years in academia, whenever a personnel issue arose, I was given the assignment to find out what was behind the problematic behavior and how to move forward.  My bosses recognized that I had knowledge and skills in communication – with particular emphasis on the skill of listening.  I was also invited to facilitate discussions on touchy subjects.

A new direction opened up for me when a former colleague moved to a new position as editor at the American Animal Hospital Association.  She asked me to create a series of communication cases for their Trends magazine.

John and CarolynMy husband, also a PhD in communication, has a flare for dramatic presentation, so we became partners in developing the communication cases and workshops.

We eventually were able to leave our “day jobs” and focus on helping others build relationships through the power of effective communication.   It is our belief and experience that effective interpersonal communication is at the root of satisfying relationships – in the family and in the workplace or community, and we have the expertise to help.

Our training appeals to learners because we ground it in realistic cases and examples – and even add the flare of drama to make it fun.   Although all of us have communicated since the day we were born, our courses help people to see their blind spots and make better choices.

We are known mostly for our basic course: Three A’s To Effective Relationships: Accept, Assert and Accommodate.  The “Accept” module unpacks the complex skill of listening and how listeners can reinforce their speaker. The “Assert” module recognizes the importance of speaking up and speaking out – with information or concerns and how to do so without being condescending or threatening.  The “Accommodate” module teaches the skills learners need when there are conflicting needs or when a mutually satisfying path forward is the objective.

The basic course we have created is followed by or adapted to specific needs.  In the family, it may be “Talking About Money” or “Talking About Sex.” In the office, it is “Conflicting Agendas,” “Communication that Impacts the Culture,” or “How Power Communicates.”  In the veterinary profession, it is “Calling Clients for Return Visits,” “Talking About Costs,” or “Discussing End-of-Life Decisions.”  Whether we’re talking about family life, workplace satisfaction, civic dialogue or world peace, our passion is with the basic art and skill of communication.

For the past fifteen years, since we began writing communication cases for the American Animal Hospital Association, much of our attention has been on veterinarian communication as well as providing materials and training for other businesses – including those who serve owners of companion animals. The application has helped businesses improve their relationships with their clients and with each other, leading to increased client return and compliance and improved workplace efficiency and satisfaction.

But what we are doing is a lot bigger than building profits – communicating effectively with customers and finding that they come back for more.  And it’s a lot bigger than having happy employees – with improved employee retention rates.

We’re talking about how to listen to all of the people in your lives – caring about them, focusing on them and being sure you hear where they are coming from.

It’s also about speaking up when you have something to say – either information that others need or a concern you have. It means learning how to own your problem, to speak for yourself, to be provocative, to be responsible –  in a non-blaming and shaming way. It’s about turning conflict into learning and working toward a win-win solution.

I’ve known people whose weight has gotten away from them until their health was at risk.  They finally spent the money and time to get help and begin life on a more healthy path.  They have never regretted the time and money spent.

Likewise, those who have taken the time to focus on what beliefs, concepts and skills they need to communicate effectively have been able to measure the results.  They have seen their relationships improve; they have developed increased confidence in their ability to present themselves; and their employment opportunities have multiplied.  It often means pushing oneself beyond the comfort level and adopting new “scripts,” new patterns of communication.  The result?  New relationships!