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»Truth begins in twos«

interview by Thomas Röbke

Friedemann Schulz von Thun on »consistency« and good leadership.

"Wahrheit beginnt zu zweit"© Schulz von Thun-Institut für KommunikationFriedemann Schulz von Thun taught at the University of Hamburg from 1975 to 2009. In 2006 he founded the Schulz-von-Thun-Institut für Kommunikation, which he has managed since then
DIE ZEIT: What most frequently goes wrong in professional communication?

Friedemann Schulz von Thun: There are many things ... A very central point is the lack of recognition. Managers far too rarely give their employees the feeling that someone is paying attention to what they're doing. And by that I mean substantial recognition that goes beyond an offhand »well done!«. Managers today are all busy enough with themselves and barely have the energy to take a caring, attentive, considerate interest in their staff.

ZEIT: But you also say that too much harmony in the workplace is counterproductive - why?

Schulz von Thun: Many colleagues treat each other with such care and consideration that frank discussions never take place. As a result, many important points are quietly dropped. Another widespread issue is that meetings are suffused with human fallibilities and lack any sort of structure; they founder in wearying tedium. A good moderator should ensure order, but also allow lively interaction. Combining structure and dynamism: that's one of the many dilemmas leadership roles pose.

ZEIT: So I'm thinking it's all going swimmingly with my colleagues - when in fact it's high time someone burst the harmony bubble. But who is supposed to do that, and how?

Schulz von Thun: If things have been pseudo-harmonious for some time, it is to be expected that at that point all the things that have been covered up and painted over will well up uncontrollably and become unmanageable. That's why it would be important to have a discussion culture that doesn't immediately dive into the first agenda item, but instead starts with a quick round: How am I doing this week? When I think about the workflows, there might perhaps be a thing or two that's been on my mind that I would like to discuss. Perhaps I'd like to mention something I was really pleased about. Starting with a round like that can be a very good way to pre-empt conflict. Too peaceful and too polite makes proceedings rather funereal: there's no real life to them, no desire for debate, no cordiality.

ZEIT: Can you tell a truly harmonious group of colleagues by the fact that they spend time together outside of work?

Schulz von Thun: If they have a shared hobby, why not? But that shouldn't be the goal. It's not necessary to spend your spare time with your co-workers as well. We respect each other as colleagues, and where we begin to no longer respect each other, we address this in a non-confrontational fashion. That requires a little courage, but it's worth it. Whether we go bowling together after work is a different matter entirely.

ZEIT: To what extent does discussing personal matters positively affect professional communication? Should I be telling my colleagues about my weekend?

Schulz von Thun: The guideline is consistency. To behave in a manner consistent both with myself - authenticity - and with the situation. We usually meet on a chessboard. So you always have to ask yourself: is it appropriate to the situation and the relationship? Is it consistent with who I am, and how do we stand with each other? There is no standard answer. Willy Brandt falling to his knees in Warsaw was absolutely consistent with this man's personality in this situation. What would not make sense would be if every German politician who went to Warsaw thought: »I think I'll fall to my knees, that always looks good here.«

ZEIT: What does that mean for management styles?

Schulz von Thun: Every manager has to find out for him- or herself: Considering the people I work with and considering the kind of person I myself am, a person who doesn't wish to dissemble: what's a good way of interacting with each other here? That's not something you'll find in any textbook. My theory of consistency expects you to invent a new way of communicating that is unique, that didn't previously exist. Communicate and behave according to your personality and the situation! Those are the two core demands of consistency. We used to practice speaking properly, appreciatively, through I-messages, active listening and so on. That was all very well intentioned, but it was a communicative Sunday suit.

ZEIT: How have »typically male« and »typically female« communication changed over the years?

Schulz von Thun: Male and female have become very similar over the past two decades. Men have become softer, more sensitive, more empathetic, while women have become more self-assured, sometimes excessively so; then they overshoot their goal. On average, a difference nonetheless remains: men are usually more eloquent at the factual level and women at the relationship level.

ZEIT: What is it like to live with your famous communication square? You invented this communication model in 1981 and have still not tired of explaining it. Like a pop musician who keeps playing his biggest hit.

Schulz von Thun: It's what you might call my early work. I still like singing this song, but thankfully I now have people in my working group who are out in the world and bring the communication square to life; I don't have to do it myself any more, except maybe occasionally at my daughter's school. I admit I'm a little proud that it is today seen as a part of general education and taught at many schools.

ZEIT: What are the values the square is intended to convey?

Schulz von Thun: That two virtues always belong together. Authenticity without sensitivity and tact is a botch-up, develops into a naive and relentless bluntness. And sensitivity without authenticity becomes a façade of diplomacy, it leaves nothing tangible. I'm talking about rainbow qualities: a rainbow only appears if two very different qualities are present at the same time: sun rays and moisture. Some managers have developed only one pole well - maybe too well - and should conquer the opposite pole. This would allow us to hope that we might complete our great project: a good combination of professionalism and humanity.

ZEIT: Your second big hit arrived 15 years ago: the inner team. Those inner, often contradictory voices...

Schulz von Thun: Anyone who communicates should be clear about his or her message. The inner team helps you understand yourself. Those who understand themselves communicate better. As long as there is a discordant, quarrelling back-and-forth within me, I can't be clear, confident and friendly towards others. I just flail about.

ZEIT: A big challenge - after all, who ever understands themselves?

Schulz von Thun: True, but it's a challenge worth taking on. Not only in order to become a good communicator, but for its own sake, in order to get one's soul safely through life. When I started giving communication training, I never suspected that everything stands and falls with this inner person being accessible to me.

ZEIT: So I absolutely have to bring this inner team into line?

Schulz von Thun: Or welcome my inner discord and say: this is a fertile conflict, it should be well understood, acted out and solved. After all, none of the disagreeing parties are stupid. The truth begins in twos, even in my soul. Consider a student who is asked by a coursemate whether he can copy her notes. She has these two voices in her head: the one that feels solidarity, that is happy to say yes, and the other that says: »I did that for myself, no pain no gain, we are also competitors in the market.« It's a blessing that she has these two voices. If she only had the one that feels solidarity, she wouldn't be able to set boundaries and be self-confident. But nor would you want to live in a world where solidarity and support are no longer en vogue. If the two are brought into contact with each other, like in a good mediation, and bring forth an answer that is supported by the whole person, that would be great. That doesn't always succeed, but it's worth accepting the challenge.

ZEIT: What does that mean applied to our everyday working lives?

Schulz von Thun: When I'm facing a difficult interaction, I need a complete team that plays together. For example, one player who firmly keeps my own interests in mind, and another who is empathetically open to the viewpoint of my interlocutor. Only the two together create a good line-up. The inner team as a model and a method helps achieve this. »If being a good leader, a good father, a good teacher is your goal, also look inside your soul.« That's a bit of a fad of mine, phrasing everything in rhymes à la Wilhelm Busch. A quirk of old age, it didn't use to be so strong.

From DIE ZEIT :: 08.09.2011