Walking On Eggshells?

Page 1


Why Can’t We Just Get Along?

There’s No Avoiding Conict

The Earlier the Better All About the How

It’s Not About Being Right

How This Guide Works

A Case Study

Case Study: Here’s What Happened in Our Last Episode of DollarBills Inc.

Taking It Home

One Final Comment

Chapter 1: The Importance of Self-Reflection

Why We Avoid Conflict Conversations

Pushing the Pause Button

Is It Really About Them?

Taking Time to Prepare

Unpacking the Trigger

What Triggered You?

What Would You Have Preferred Instead?

How Serious Is This?

Are Other Factors at Play?


The Importance of Self-Reflection

In my Effective Communication workshops, I commonly ask employees and workplace leaders two questions about avoiding conflict conversations.

First I ask, “Why do you avoid initiating these conversations?” And the second question I ask is, “Why do you fear being invited to one?”

Why We Avoid Conict Conversations

Individuals, regardless of their role in the workplace, fear starting a conversation about conflict because of the following concerns, rooted in their past experiences.

■ The other person will become defensive and shut down.

■ The other person will dismiss their concerns or, worse, mock or belittle them.

■ The other person will refuse to meet or, when they meet, will remain unresponsive and disengaged.

■ The other person will become angry and “personally attack” them in the discussion, using disrespectful words or non-verbal body language.

■ The other person will refuse to accept any responsibility for the

situation, make excuses for their behavior, blame the person who initiated the conversation (“it’s your fault”) or blame someone else (“it’s their fault”).

■ The other person will shun them or retaliate and gossip about them afterwards, making the situation worse than it was before.

Individuals who fear participating in a conflict conversation to which they have been invited voice the following concerns, also rooted in their past experiences.

■ They will be blindsided by an incident, complaint, information or details of which they are unaware.

■ They will be unable to properly respond or defend themselves because they have had no time to prepare, as compared to the person who initiated the conversation.

■ They will be embarrassed because the conversation might happen in front of others (customers, coworkers, clients).

■ They may disagree with how they are being characterized but don’t want to come across as defensive.

■ They will face personal attacks about their behavior, which are often rooted in mistaken assumptions and misinformation.

■ They will be treated disrespectfully by the specific words used to describe them and their alleged behavior.

■ They will be intimidated, humiliated or belittled by the sarcastic, abrasive or condescending tone of the comments or questions put to them.

■ They will feel pre-judged without being given an opportunity to

offer an explanation or response.

■ They will be concerned over how they may be viewed by others or, worse, by punitive consequences that could flow from the accusations/concerns.

■ They will not be provided with a genuine and full opportunity to respond, if any at all.

While avoiding conflict conversations prolongs conflict, this feedback makes clear that having ill-planned, hasty and often emotionally charged conversations can worsen the situation. These are conversations that create conflict instead of resolving it. So, what do you do?

Pushing the Pause Button

Unless the situation is urgent, before having a conversation, push the pause button. That is to say, remove yourself from the situation as soon as reasonably possible and take some time to calm down and/or recharge.

In order to do this, you first need to realize you have been triggered. This looks different in each of us. Some individuals –upon hearing or seeing something that upsets them – may get a knot in their stomachs, begin to perspire and become hot (literally), feel their heart racing or their skin tingling. As soon as you become aware of internal signs that you are upset, angry, hurt or embarrassed, make all reasonable efforts to leave the situation and put an end to the immediate dysfunction and disrespect.

If that’s impossible (e.g., you are in a vehicle or on a critical client call), breathe, write yourself notes and do whatever you can to

respectfully distract and disrupt the conversation – that is, change the topic or shift the tone. While it is important to do whatever is necessary to keep yourself safe and your boundaries protected in the moment, it is as necessary not to engage in a Mirror Conversation while you are emotionally charged.

At your first reasonable opportunity, leave, push the pause button and give yourself time and space to rest, re-charge and reflect.

There are two good reasons for this action. First, doing so allows you to determine if you really need to have a Mirror Conversation and, second, it gives you time to prepare for one.

Let’s explore both reasons further.


Giving yourself time away from the incident/interaction allows you to determine whether it caused your stress/anxiety or whether it was for some other reason. Perhaps you were tired, overworked or undernourished. Maybe you were waiting for medical test results for you or a family member. Perhaps you had just heard disappointing news unrelated to the incident itself. Perhaps this situation, however minor, reminded you of some past trauma (given the day it happened or who it involved).

It may have been any one of these factors that caused or contributed to your stress and, in the heat of the moment, you inaccurately or disproportionately attributed your reaction to this particular incident and those who were involved.

Pushing pause helps answer the question, “Is this really about them (or all about them) or is there something else going on?”

Your answer to this question should not be rushed and should be genuine. While it is not helpful to take on issues that you no longer have, it is equally unhelpful to ignore or dismiss dynamics and interactions that – even after a tasty meal and good night’s sleep –continue to haunt you and interfere with your ability to work or be at work. In those situations, it is important not to talk yourself out of what you know to be true and take next steps to resolve the conflict.


Even where the incident has caused you stress and needs to be discussed, pushing the pause button allows you to prepare for that conversation so that you convey your concerns in a constructive, descriptive and respectful manner. Approaching someone in the heat of the moment to get something off your chest or sending an aggressive and accusatory e-mail at two in the morning often makes the situation far worse. That’s conflict creation, not conflict resolution.

Taking these steps will lead to a Mirror Conversation – that is, a conflict conversation done properly!

Unpacking the Trigger

For Mirror Conversations to be effective, your first conversation has to be with yourself. You need to better understand why you are upset before you can accurately convey it to others. During this discussion with yourself, you should reflect back on the incident/interaction to


■ what specifically triggered you,

■ at what point you were triggered,

■ your preferred outcome (what you would have liked to have seen/heard instead),

■ the seriousness of the incident,

■ any relevant history and

■ other factors that may be at play.

As part of this, you need to reflect not only on those actions that triggered you but also on the meaning you have attached to such behavior – that is, the story you have created in your head about what happened.


What exactly triggered you and why? This may take some time to figure out – or not! In answering this question, it is important to recall and clearly visualize what happened, including what was said or done by whom (and in what manner), who was there (as bystander or contributor) and what additional factors played a role, such as any relevant history or broader context related to the most recent interaction/incident.

Without reflecting on what happened, you end up describing an incident or event by how you felt or reacted (“I was so angry” or “I was so embarrassed”) or by labeling the other person (“you were so rude” or “you intimidated me” or “you were so offensive”).

These descriptors, even if accurate, do not result in helpful or concrete feedback for the other person on how their behavior or communication contributed to the situation. This is the information you will need to reflect back to them in your Mirror Conversation.

For example, if you became angry or embarrassed at a meeting, walk through the entire meeting in your mind and try to determine the point at which you reacted in this manner and why. When did your stomach tighten into knots? When did your face get hot, your chest start pounding or your palms get sweaty? And why do you think that happened? Was it what was said, who said it, how it was said, who was there to hear it or something else entirely? How did you interpret what happened? Did it remind you of another traumatic or disruptive time in your career or personal life that involved different individuals?

If you reacted emotionally in reading an e-mail, why? Was it the questions being asked, the comments being made, the tone of the message, the author of the e-mail, the demanding or repetitive nature of the message or request or who was included in the e-mail chain (or maybe a combination)? Or something else altogether? What meaning have you attached to this e-mail beyond what it says that may be causing some of your stress? Are you reading words into the e-mail that are not there? Are you reading the e-mail using a particular “tone” or is the manner truly coming from the author? Does the e-mail remind you of a past situation with this person, or perhaps someone else, that ended badly?

These are only two examples of so many triggers we encounter on a regular basis.


If you became angry or hurt during a conversation with your partner at dinner, try to pinpoint specically when that happened and why. Was it what they said or the way in which they said it? Was it their choice of words or their dismissive or accusatory tone? Was it their comment or how you interpreted it that caused you to become upset?

If you became upset reading a comment that your friend made on social media, ask yourself why. Was it because of what they said (e.g., you found it offensive and inappropriate) or to whom it was directed (in that it was none of their business)? Were you upset that it was done publicly or would you have been just as upset if the comment was made privately? Were you offended by their opinion or by the way in which they had expressed it? Or were you angry simply because you disagree with them?


Once you’ve reflected on what went wrong, you need to ask yourself how you would have preferred the other person(s) to have acted or reacted instead. I call this your “answer key.”

In the examples set out above, how would you have preferred the individual(s) communicate during the meeting or in the e-mail (bearing in mind that the content of some work-related questions, criticisms or comments – however uncomfortable – may need to remain the same). For example, would you have preferred that the comments or criticism in the team meeting, group e-mail or social media post were communicated privately and at another time? Or were you okay with where and when they were made but you would have preferred for them to have been worded differently? Or maybe the tone needed to change? What does your “preference” in this regard look like – that is, how would you have preferred for them to have communicated in that situation? Be as specific in

reflecting on your answer key as you are in thinking about what didn’t work for you.


Once you’ve figured out what about the other person’s actions triggered you, you then need to determine – on a scale of one to ten – how seriously you viewed their disrespect.

As part of this, you not only need to consider the behavior during the incident/interaction but also whether this was a one-off incident or part of an ongoing pattern. If there is a history of similar concerns with this person, how extensive is this history – days, weeks, months? Is this your first time dealing with this person and situation or have you already had conflict conversations with them around this? What were the outcomes of those discussions?

Chapter 3 and the Scale of Dysfunctional Conduct (Figure 2) will assist you with this assessment.


Finally, it is important to reflect on whether there were any other relevant factors influencing your reaction to the incident, as well as any reluctance you may have in approaching the other person to discuss the situation.

For example, is this someone with power over you or within the broader organization (e.g., a supervisor, someone with more seniority, someone in a higher-level position, an important client or someone with greater influence than you on the team)? Is this someone you fear speaking to on your own, based on your past experiences with or knowledge about them?

Working through these tasks will help you:

■ Respectfully and meaningfully describe your past experience to others (e.g., the person involved, your supervisor or your union representative).

■ Respectfully and meaningfully describe your personal and professional preferences, boundaries and expectations for the future (that is, what you would prefer or expect to happen next time).

■ Determine if it is you who should be having the conversation (either alone or with support) or if it is a conversation that should happen on your behalf by others, such as your supervisor, manager or a human resources or union representative.

CASE STUDY Joe Pushes Pause to Reflect on What Happened

During this phase, Joe needs to reect on two work-related concerns. First, Joe is concerned that Mike and others are not compliant with current safety regulations. Second, Joe is concerned about his latest interaction with Mike.

As part of this, Joe should reect back on those work-related practices that upset him to determine why he is concerned. What does he think Mike and others did and why does he think this is a problem? He needs to point out specic decisions that have been made and then identify any internal or regulatory rules that he believes were not being followed in those circumstances.

As part of that, Joe needs to reect on what he thinks should have happened instead. What should Mike have done to have been compliant? Again, he needs to be specic.

Second, Joe should reect on his recent interaction with Mike and determine what specically triggered him. Was it the fact that Mike dismissed his concerns? Was it Mike’s words or perhaps his tone? Were others there at the time and, if so, was this a factor?

As part of this, Joe needs to reect on what he would have preferred. Even assuming Mike disagreed with him and had constructive criticism to share, how could Mike have shown up differently so that Joe would have felt less embarrassed and more respected? This too needs to be specic.

As part of this, Joe needs to consider how often this has happened, whether he has had conversations with Mike before, and how those conversations went.

Finally, Joe might need to consider the broader dynamics, such as Mike’s seniority, Joe’s past knowledge of and experiences with Mike (both positive and negative) as well as any perceived concerns with Mike’s connection to others in the department (such as their supervisor Laurie).


The MirrorConversation:A Worksheet and Guide

The Mirror Conversation is rooted in the importance of reflection.

First, it’s essential to reflect on what’s bothering you and second, it’s crucial to figure out how best to convey that to others.


When reflecting on something that has bothered you, it’s essential to look at the trigger.

Something happens in the workplace (related to work or the work environment), and you notice that you are emotional or distracted. You find yourself upset, angry, embarrassed, surprised, frustrated, confused or disappointed.

What should you do when this occurs?

Stop, and on your own, before speaking to the person involved, reflect on the recent event and ask yourself:

What specifically triggered this reaction? Don’t make this about the person – make it about that person’s behavior, communication, performance or otherwise. Consider the different types of dysfunction that were covered in Chapter 2, The Most Common

Causes of Dysfunction. Was it a mistake someone made? Their overbearing behavior? An inappropriate or insensitive comment or e-mail?

Next, describe the overall situation in a way that may be easily visualized or understood by others. Where did it take place? When? Who was there? What specifically about their comment, conduct or performance caused you concern? Do not use accusatory language or broad labels such as “rude,” “irritating,” “offensive” or “annoying.” Do not make assumptions about why they did what they did. Simply describe what you “saw” or “heard” at the time.

Review your description to ensure that you have used neutral and non-inflammatory words. Have you included enough specific information to help the other person clearly understand what you believe happened and why it negatively impacted you or your work? Frame the situation in a way that others will best understand how you saw and experienced it.

Absent an urgent, serious situation, do nothing. Push the pause button. Go home. Exercise. Eat well. Sleep well.

The next day – check-in with yourself to see if it’s genuinely still bothering you. Sometimes, time helps us determine whether an “issue” is indeed an issue or, instead, was a one-off annoyance or irritation that may have been aggravated by our own circumstances (work pressures, workload, personal stress).

If it was a fleeting comment or event with no lasting effect on you, then it’s not “dysfunctional” because it has not affected your ability to function at work.

If it happened only once but appears to be affecting your ability to perform your job duties, then you should discuss it with the person involved (with support where necessary).

If it is serious, or part of a longstanding pattern of similar behavior towards you, then you should report it to someone in a leadership position in a timely and respectful manner (using the work that you did in self-reflection) so that they may then review the situation with the other person.


Review your experience of the incident/interaction again to ensure

it is neutral and non-inflammatory. Sometimes, the passage of time helps to clarify these issues for ourselves and others.

Set up the conversation at a mutually convenient time and in a confidential location. Don’t blindside the other person – give them notice that you want to talk to them about something and give them a general sense of what that is.


Explain why you are frustrated/upset, sharing specific examples of what they said/did that caused your concern; outline how this has impacted you at work and describe how you would prefer to interact and work with them moving forward.

Use the work you did during your self-reflection to ensure this is descriptive – “mirror back” for them what you experienced at the time.

The goal is not to blame, humiliate or antagonize the other person or to convince them that you are right and they are wrong. The goal is to have that person better understand your experiences with them and what you would like to see changed in the future.

Initially, the person accused of engaging in workplace dysfunction simply needs to listen. That’s it – it’s harder than it sounds.


Now, it’s their turn. They should be allowed to respond by sharing their perspective on what happened, including their viewpoint and understanding of what they said or did (or what they had intended

to say or do).

Like you, they may need time to pause the conversation in order to self-reflect and prepare their response, using the guidance set out above. This will help ensure that their response will be neutral and non-inflammatory.

Both of you should:

■ Listen openly – listening is not an admission of guilt

■ Be open to learning new facts and circumstances

■ Be open to learning something new about the other person

■ Be open to hearing how you may have come across (even if you were not aware of this or it was unintentional)

■ Acknowledge the other person’s experiences or feelings –acknowledgment is not the same thing as agreeing with them

Each person has a right to:

■ Ask for more details and information (in a curious, non-accusatory manner)

■ Disagree on specific facts or the way in which their actions have been characterized or interpreted

■ Deny wrongdoing, with an explanation or elaboration where appropriate

■ Share a different perspective on what happened


After each person has shared their perspective, it is time to stop

talking about the past and begin to explore practical and simple ways to move forward.

This does not require you to reach consensus, find fault or point fingers. It’s about figuring out how to work together in the future for everyone’s benefit.

At no time before, during or after these discussions is anyone, regardless of position, seniority or otherwise allowed to:

■ Attack others on the basis oftheir age, gender, race, religion or other protected grounds in human rights legislation

■ Attack verbally through name-calling

■ Attack using unwelcomed sarcasm or a dismissive or condescending tone

■ Attack with non-verbal communication (eye-rolling, sighing)

■ Humiliate, shame or intimidate the other, either directly or indirectly, through workplace gossip, e-mails, social media or otherwise

4.Takinga Break

If the conversation becomes too heated, you can “take a break” and begin again the next day.

If you reach an impasse, that is, one or both of you believe that a practical solution cannot be reached on your own, then you need to get assistance/clarification/direction from a workplace leader, human resources advisor or a union representative. Even the mildest issues, left unresolved, turn molehills into mountains.

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