In recent times there is increased emphasis on resolving workplace conflict, relationship difficulties, bullying and/or harassment, at an early stage and with the person directly themselves. All well and good you might think but that can be a lot harder than it sounds.
This challenge is in no way helped either by the language found in the most standard Anti-Bullying/Harassment policies: “Stage One: Approach the alleged perpetrator and let them know their behaviour is offensive…”
As well as the mindset that wording like ‘alleged perpetrator’ evokes, as a conversational frame, escalation rather than resolution is a more likely outcome. Yet all of the research would say, empowering someone to have the conversation themselves with the person they are having difficulties with will lead to quicker and better outcomes for workplace conflict. So how might you as a Manager, H.R. Manager, Contact Person or Colleague support someone who’s thinking about doing this themselves?
Here are four key questions that you can use to help them think it through and prepare:
How would you like things to be at the end of this conversation?
This is about setting a clear goal for their conversation and helping them first of all paint for themselves a compelling vision. Research shows that the very act of setting goals for oneself improves the chances of actually getting there. By starting with the end in mind, you can then use it to keep them on track as they plan the details of what exactly they would say/respond as they go through. So if they say ‘I’d like just to get back to normal working relationships’ and then later say ‘I’d like to tell him he’s just a bully!’ you can gently challenge as to how making this statement might clash with their overarching goal of getting back to ‘normal working relationships’.
What are the key points that you need to communicate to the other person?
Here you are helping the person clarify the details around the main messages they want the other person to understand about the situation. This will be a twofold exercise. Focus first of all on helping them get clear in their heads about specifics of what they are not happy with or where they’d like to see changes. Then they need to frame messages around these specifics. Use gentle probing to help them get to the essential or core issues at stake for them e.g. ‘What is most important to you to say to John? Or ‘What’s at stake here for you in this’
How can you say these in a way that the other person won’t get defensive?
This is where you tease out with them how best they can frame their points in a way that will optimise the chances of it being heard. You can start by asking them what works for them, if someone has to give them negative feedback or what makes it easier to hear a hard message. Equally, help them explore what it is about someone delivering such a message would shut them down or make them less open to hearing about it.
Remind them that it can be helpful to have (and let the other person know about) positive intentions on their part e.g. an intention to be respectful and constructive as well as an intention to maintain a good working relationship. It can also be useful to help them frame their message as an ‘I’ statement (‘my experience’, ‘the impact or how it landed on me’) as opposed to a ‘You’ statement (‘you did this and you are a xxx’).
What might take you off track in this conversation and how will you manage that?
At this point, they have a plan around what they will say and how they will say it. Now they need to do some contingency planning. You can prompt them around this e.g. ‘what might they say that would make you angry or upset’ and then explore how they could react if that happens. Often, just having thought this through in advance will ‘arm’ them adequately to keep calm or non-reactive if it happens. Other derailers they might identify might be how to manage if the discussion drifts into other (unrelated) issues or if the person starts to accuse them back. Teasing all of this out might take some time and here you would go back to the previous questions to help them frame constructive messages around this.
At the end of the process, suggest that they put in writing the key points they wish to make as well as the various strategies that they identified around how they will deal with challenges and how they will remain calm and on track. You might also suggest doing a practice run through it with them or that they do this with a trusted friend/partner etc. In the meantime, check your own Anti-Bullying/Harassment policy and see whether the language there has the potential to cause more harm and inflame rather than empower and de-escalate difficult situations.