Communication, Conflict and Ethical Charities

The majority of people working for charities are paid to communicate. Even if someone has a technical job like a computer engineer, communicating with other people enables them to do this job effectively. When communication breaks down wasteful and unpleasant conflict occurs. People who are successful, happy and well liked in the workplace are very likely to be good communicators and studies show that emotional intelligence – a big part of communication – is three times more likely than IQ or technical skill to predict career success.* It is also important for organisations to behave in an emotionally intelligent and ethical way themselves internally as well as externally, reducing the conflict between espoused values and how staff are treated day-to-day. 

Language Gets Things Done

We tend to think of conversation, whether it be by e-mail, phone or face-to-face as not really work, yet communication is how people get things done! Language is a phenomenal system human beings have evolved for coordinating action over time and space. I would argue it IS a form of action itself and the very core of work – particularly in the information age. Why then is not studied and common-sense understanding of how communication happens clarified?

If you’d like to coordinate for effectively with your colleagues some simple linguistic distinctions can be useful. Requests are a good place to start as asking for things is how things happen! This may sound obvious but most days I hear confusing semi-requests “It’s hot in here” rather than “please open a  window”, requests without time-frames or even a specific action, set of standards or person to be asked! E.g. “do the report john” (sure, to what standard and by when?), “would someone sort out the computer system” (who?). What is worse, people do not clarify these requests and then agree to them. Saying yes to an unclear request is like giving a blank check when buying something. Another common mistake is “maybe”. Maybe can mean “yes”, it can mean “no”, it can mean “I’ll tell you later specifically…”, or “I won’t do that but I will do this…” These are the four basic responses to a request and worth clarifying.

Other powerful “speech acts” include declarations “Within 10 years we will end poverty”, and assessments “Bob is a bad fundraiser”, “this is the best project we’ve ever done”. Like requests these can be done more or less skilfully.

See the work of Fernando Flores, the Newfield coaching school or the book Language and the Pursuit of Happiness by the Chalmers Brothers for more information.

Communication with Heart

So far I have discussed the structural and logical side of communication, but this isn’t the whole picture. Human beings are also just that – human beings – with values, emotions and needs. Ironically I would note that charities only exist because of this side of our nature yet they don’t always operate internally in a way which takes this into account and allows people to flourish long-term at work. Appreciating needs, values and emotions takes time but are are a few tips for communicating with more emotional intelligence:

–       Listen empathically to other people, with full attention and the intention to connect

–       Be aware of your own feelings and develop a language for expressing them

–       Appreciate the power of mirroring when influencing others or “catching” their mood

–       Timing is crucial  – tact

–       Use humour…wisely

–       Read the points on conflict below as these all apply…

See the work of Marshall Rosenberg or Daniel Goleman for more on this side of communication.

Embodied Communication

As well as linguistic communication I’d like to note that most emotionally significant communication occurs via the body (see Albert Mehrabian’s work). In fact it is more than body language as in a sense we are our bodies.  People and organisations live “in” long-term moods which dispose them to certain actions. These moods are critical for charity managers to recognise so they can effectively lead teams. A person’s ability to lead is hampered or enabled by the non-verbal communication they are giving off continuously (mostly unconsciously) and the mood they inhabit.


When workplace communication breaks down – and I have seen this again and again both in British charity offices and in the field around the world – relationships, the task at hand and individual employees suffer. Workflow comes to a grinding halt and everyone is miserable. This is a great shame as transforming conflict into an opportunity for greater connection and learning is very possible.

Skill in working with conflict is in my opinion essential in the charity sector as unconventional and highly principles people abound (thank God) sometimes with sensitive natures (thank the full pantheon from diverse world traditions and random chance for the atheists so nobody is excluded…and thank maybe too for the agnostics). You make the call on leaving this in or not J

Again, developing great communication skills is a long-term project and here are a few tips for now: 

–       Listen (this means not interrupting, and may involve paraphrasing, but the critical part if just empathy – the intention to connect in the present moment)

–       Avoid comparisons and judgements (especially moralistic “shoulding” and blame)

–       Separate any facts from opinions and start with observation not evaluations.

–       Acknowledge emotions and hold yourself responsible for your own feelings, while they may be a stimulus someone cannot “make you angry” for example

–       Listen for and express the underlying needs and values “behind” feelings. E.g. “I’m anxious because I need support”

–       Manage your state in a conflict situation using embodied techniques such as “centring”, “grounding” and deep breathing

–       Appreciate cultural diversity

–       Listen some more

See NonViolent Communication and “Getting to Yes” by Fisher and Ury for more on conflict resolution, mediation and negotiation.

An Ethical Sector?

Many people from outside imagine that the charities and non-profit sector must be a fluffy affair where people are always valued, respected and looked after. Ha! What a joke! Having worked in both business and NGOs and trained both groups in a diverse range of organisations I note that charities are often far more brutal and less ethical in their treatment of staff than most supposedly “cut-throat” corporations.  I have seen human rights organisations that do not treat employees humanly, environmental organisations where it is the norm to work in and unsustainable way leading to burn-out and peace building charities constantly at war with themselves.  Yes, they may buy Fairtrade coffee and bank with the Coop, but to me that’s not worth a lot if employees are encouraged to work so hard their marriages break-down and they die of heart attacks from the stress. I would like to offer a loving challenge to the charities sector to really walk its talk and live the values that are so often espoused.

Roots of Unethical Behaviour

Do people behave unethically because they are bad people? No I don’t think so, I continue to work with not-for-profits as I love the people involved as well as the work. So how to reconcile the fact that the charities world is full of wonderful caring individuals, yet many organisations and work practices within the sector are Victorian at best?  There are a number of factors – the most obvious one being budget and time constraints. People say they “have to” work this way because of lack of resources in the charities world (language that denies choice is at the heart of unethical behaviour by the way –known by the Nazis as Amtssprache).However this really isn’t good enough as people are only under resourced because of commitments they and their organisations have made. Somehow unethical charities are always one month or “one big grant” away from treating staff in a way which looks after their needs. In a way the short term “burn em up and spit em out” approach to staffing is just short-sighted and behind much current business practice. Such policies can also be justified by working for a good cause in a way that people simply would not tolerate if they were working just for money. I would ask leaders in the field to not model marathon anti-social work hours or misuse the motivation that doing good in the world creates in people. It is also up to each individual in a charity to not buy-into what I call the willing martar or saviour syndrome and look after themselves – it is not just managers who are the cause of this but an endemic culture of service turned into masochism.

If you work in a charity and want to help others look after yourself and colleagues. Put your own oxygen mask on first as they say on the plane, not because it is selfish, but because it is essential for sustained enjoyable and effective working. Loving and caring about what you do is perhaps more dangerous than hating it when it comes to stress, burn-out and putting unreasonable work demands on oneself and colleagues.


Communication, emotions, conflict resolution and really embodying values all matter if charities want to get the job done and enjoy themselves doing it. I hope I have communicated this effectively.

*quoted in Emotional Intelligence at Work – Daniel Goleman

 About the Author

Mark Walsh leads business training providers Integration Training, specialising in communication, stress and time management and leadership training. He has a background in psychology and non-profit sector work with sports, peace-building and youth work. He has pioneered “embodied” approaches to training in the UK and heads the Achilles Initiative – a training project that increases the resilience of people working in conflict zones.   07762 541 855