Throughout the four Wednesdays of September, fifteen leads and managers of Advanced Welding & Steel, Inc. of Grangeville gathered in the afternoons to learn about communication with Sister Meg Sass. She has a long history of experience in education, parish ministry, leadership, and community development.
Most of the workers are in heavy work boots and work clothes suitable for the large welding facility. A few are from the administrative and leadership team, including Ryan Uhlenkott, who owns Advanced Welding & Steel, Inc. with his wife.
In the fourth and final session, the group is practicing sharing personal stories and listening — accurately naming feelings and using “I” language: a way of speaking about feelings that promotes personal responsibility and healthy vulnerability. The goal in these communication exercises is to create a deepened sense of common ownership of the company’s future and a desire to see every person succeed. Another outcome of such sharing is an understanding of one another that leads to smoother work relationships — developing respect that helps to settle disagreements objectively, keeping emotions in perspective.
“We are walking on tender ground,” explains Sister Meg, as she coaches the participants to find the most accurate words to name their emotions and encourages the listeners in skills that validate feelings. She also shares a personal story and models expressing deep emotion.
“That must have been so frightening for you,” offers a compassionate listener after one particularly difficult story. Sister Meg affirms the reflective statement and another person takes a turn at sharing.
“Feelings are natural, human reactions to our perception of what has happened,” explains Sister Meg. “You have to check it out.” It is not always easy. There is occasional, nervous laughter. The discussion turns toward understanding cultural and gender biases around expressing emotions and being comfortable in the presence of strong feelings.
While some share their discomfort with strong emotions, another participant sees things differently. “I enjoy seeing other people’s emotions because it doesn’t make me feel so foreign in a culture where it feels like I’m not supposed to show emotions.”
Sister Meg extols the group for growing in their abilities to be authentic and to appreciate authenticity in one another. She says they have grown in their awareness of patterns of communication that may be hurtful such as sarcasm and shaming. “This group has grown close to one another,” she says. “They are trusting one another more.”
One participant affirmed the benefits of the class. “This has helped me understand our own culture and how we talk to each other and how our own assumptions might get in the way.”
After one story, a participant expresses a deepening awareness of the life of his coworker. “I had no idea this was happening to you,” he says with dismay.
Owner Ryan Uhlenkott was inspired to bring the communication training into the workplace after attending a 15-hour weekend intensive with Sister Meg as part of his training in becoming a deacon with the Catholic Diocese of Boise. The company has grown substantially to 90 employees and he was seeing the need for better workplace communication. “I wanted to give back and offer something that will also help them in their own lives,” he explains, “plus having better communication improves efficiency and production and reduces mistakes — we are operating as one.”