Dealing with Workplace Bullying and Harassment Issues

Difficulties in Working Relationships: Understand and Reverse The Negative Cycle

When we find ourselves becoming increasingly annoyed, upset or fearful around someone’s behaviour and attitude over an extended period of time, here’s what tends to happen for many people:

Negative Cycle of Interaction

  1. We start to have increasingly negative thoughts about that person/persons which in turn causes us to experience a greater level of unpleasant emotions such as anger, hurt, irritation etc.
  2. We begin to see that person as a key source of our own stress and negative feelings at work and often end up ruminating and worrying about it outside the workplace.
  3. We get into a mindset of thinking that they have to change before we can feel good about coming to work. We find ourselves putting a lot of our attention and focus on that other person’s behaviour, how bad it is, how they aren’t doing X or Y etc.
  4. This consumes huge amounts of our positive energy and motivation and we begin to see oStressed about conflict urselves as the ‘victim’ of that other person/persons behaviour and attitude. Frequently, we also have a story in our minds about that person’s behaviour in some way undervaluing us or undermining us. We can even let this story take over how we see ourselves and find ourselves wanting to try and ‘make’ this other person realise that we are of value and we are a worthwhile person.
  5. When that happens we have then disempowered ourselves and lost touch with our own inner resilience and wisdom about how best to handle and negotiate the situation with this other person/persons. We tend to be reactive and operating from a hurt, angry or irritated state of mind. We have lost touch with our own inner wisdom and intelligence about how to negotiate and engage with this person in a constructive and productive way.
  6. We then ‘react’ in some way (even if it’s just that we are less friendly, open and trusting in our attitude). They of course pick this up and similarly the cycle happens for them. A vicious cycle of action-impact-reaction gets set up between us and them.

Reversing the Negative Cycle – Some points to reflect on

1. To what extent to which you are allowing the negative thoughts about that person/persons and their behaviour (whether it’s how they interact with you or whether it’s to do with how they perform in their role) affect your own mood and well-being?

2. Whildamaged trust workplacee it looks like other people can ‘make us feel’ a certain way, no-one can have that ‘power’ unless we give it to them. How we feel in any one moment is determined by what’s going on inside our own minds not outside of us. It’s like a bank account, no one can put in or take out without you letting them. For example, if you really think about it, you will find that the same behaviour from another person in a different context might not bother you so much.

3. Realise that you can let the negative thoughts about the other person and the situation (you can’t actually stop or prevent your thoughts) just come into your mind and ‘go out the other side’ rather than letting them determine your mood and state of mind.

4. Understand that beneath all the thinking and worrying, you have access to an amazing creative and resourceful intelligence and intuition that can help and guide you on the best approach to deal with this person and this situation.

5. Understand that you always have access to this innate resilience and intelligence when you are in a calm, centred state of mind. That’s all you need to do… Move away from thinking that your worth and value as a person is linked to what someone else does or says. Instead, turn your attention inward and see if you can get in touch with your own clarity, wisdom and peace of mind.

6. From that place, then be open to figuring out how you can talk things through with that other person in a constructive and effective way.
What might be some of the things you need to talk about and start doing differently so that each of you can interact and work together in a productive way?

So does this mean I shouldn’t feel this way?

So does this mean that it’s all my own fault? That this person’s ‘difficult’ behaviour or unhelpful actions are all ‘ok’ and that I’m the person who has to change?
In life, there will always be people who do or say things and act in ways that seem to upset or frustrate us. Indeed their behaviour might be described by most people as ‘difficult’ or ‘inappropriate’ or ‘undermining’.
That’s a fact. Nobody is denying this.
And as we are all human, there is no denying that our experience of this behaviour can be unpleasant and upsetting. However, your main job in life is to look after you… and it’s tempting to think that if you can ‘make the other person change’, that this is how best to look after yourself. But the trouble is, you can’t control anyone else’s behaviour. You can’t control how they act or whether they will take on board your requests for them to change. So you have to look after and take responsibility for the only person you can influence – yourself.
That means knowing that you have access to a state of mind where you aren’t as affected emotionally by their behaviour. It means tapping into your own innate resilience, your own inbuilt ‘well-being’ immune system. Then you have a clear calm mind to help you focus on making the best attempts possible to positively influence them. So it’s about ‘putting on your own oxygen mask’ first before trying to ‘tackle’ any kind of dialogue or conversation with them about change.

Engage in dialogue from a clear and more settled ‘state of mind’
Once you are in a clearer, calmer and more centred state of mind, you are in a better place to engage in a dialogue with the other person/persons about making things work better. From this frame of mind you can think clearly about what it is you might need from them to be able to work together more effectively. Equally, you are more open to hearing from them, what they might need from you to work more effectively.

If you’d like to find out more, check out my blog or download my free eBook here
Or if I can help in any way, please drop me an email at

Relationships that Endlessly Frustrate: Can the Dynamic Be Changed?

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” ~ Anaïs Nin Optical Illusion

The above quote neatly captures the psychological phenomenon, that while there is a factual and concrete reality out there, none of us have a truly objective view. There can be many different perceptions of the same situation. As an example, I show this picture to my mediation/conflict management training groups and ask people what they see. (What do you see by the way? An old man – side profile or facing forward… can you see the young woman and her baby?). And most of us get that it’s the same glass with water at the half-way mark that’s varyingly described as half-full or half-empty.

But when it comes to translating that theory into practice, in the negative emotional space of a difficult relationship, it’s much harder to believe that you are just operating from your own bias. You think you are seeing them as they are.

That was a challenge I’ve had for many years in a close personal relationship. I found this person difficult to be around. As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t just my perception, this was one of those exceptions…where the person truly is ‘difficult’ to handle.

We don’t experience events… we experience our thinking about events

For years, there has been ample research to demonstrate that what we perceive as reality is mediated through our own filters of thought – attitudes, beliefs, preconceptions. But what many psychologists are starting to realise, is that it’s not just that we have different interpretations of reality but that the reality we experience is 100% created by us – by our own thoughts and feelings occurring in every moment. Rather than us being at the mercy of our circumstances which are causing us to feel or think a certain way, life is an inside-out job.

No matter how scary or oppressive or insecure your experience of life may be, once you realize that it’s only your own thinking that you’re experiencing, that thinking loses much of its hold over you. We don’t experience the world; we experience our thinking about the world.
Michael Neill, The Inside Out Revolution

As the Mediator or Conflict Coach it’s easy to see this in action with clients – how they are experiencing their thinking rather than the concrete events. But when you are caught up yourself in a difficult relationship and the accompanying thoughts and feelings that get generated, it’s much harder to step back and be objective.

But it felt like objective reality…

This has been my experience in a longstanding relationship in my personal/family life which I have always found problematic. While there were arguments and stand-up rows in the past, in more recent years, I had applied all my own good ‘conflict management’ skills to our interactions. For the most part, I could remain constructive, calm, do the listening thing, be tolerant and accepting, manage my boundaries etc. Our relationship had certainly improved (on the outside) but truth be told, underneath my calm exterior, I felt irritated and resentful a lot of the time in their company. Every so often I’d erupt with a passive aggressive comment or side-swipe which didn’t help the situation.

At one level I could understand that it was my perceptions of this person that were somehow skewed. Yet at another level, I really believed that in this particular case, what I was seeing was objective reality. In other words, this person was truly a negative, self-centred, repetitive, judgemental, moody… you-name-it person and my only choice was to live with it and manage it to the best extent possible.

I’ve been dipping into a new approach to understanding the interplay between thoughts, feeling and behaviour. So I was curious to see if this could help me deal differently with this person in my life.

How we create a negative story in our minds and then substitute it for reality

In a coaching session with author and coach Dr Anne Curtis she invited me to slow down and reflect on what was going through my mind when I was in this person’s company. I began to see that even before I would meet them, I would have a whole negative story and history in my mind about what they might say or do. And I would even think through how I might cope with this behaviour when it would come up. When I was in their company then, I wasn’t really connecting with the person, rather I was listening to confirm my negative assumptions in a ‘here we go again’ kind of way.

Slowly it started to dawn on me that rather than this person causing me to feel/think a certain way, I was the creator of that experience. Sure they might be behaving in a way that would reinforce my ‘story’ but the unpleasant feelings were all coming from my own stream of negative thoughts about them.

Not only this, but this whole cacophony of pre-conceptions was getting in the way of any true connection or listening to this other person. I wasn’t really experiencing them; I was just experiencing my thinking about them. And that in turn was leading me to feel tetchy and impatient. Sure I didn’t react or express this but neither was I truly open to seeing beyond my own prejudices about them.

The freedom that comes from realising where feelings come from

These reflections were insightful but would it really change anything? Would I find it easier to spend time with them? Would I be less irritated and on edge?

Since then I’ve met with them several times. And the difference has been quite remarkable. I have completely let go of the negative stream of consciousness thinking and am now inwardly just calm and at ease. I’m able to listen at a much more empathic and genuine level. What I’m also seeing clearly is that the things they say that had previously really irked me are just them caught up in their thinking. And I don’t have to take it so seriously.

Not only is my experience different but there are subtle changes also in them. They are listening to me more, the negative and judgmental conversation has lessened.  I feel compassion and warmth now instead of judgement and resentment. Most importantly, I no longer care whether they change or not.

And… just to be clear about this… it’s not about having positive thoughts, practicing acceptance, forbearance or deep breathing. Neither is this about changing or reframing one’s thinking nor is it about denying the reality of difficult relationships.
Instead, it’s in understanding the source of our discomfort is our own arbitrary and transient thoughts which leaves us free to move beyond them and being more present to the moment and to the person in front of us.

Try it!

Read more about navigating difficult conversations with confidence and clarity download our free eBook ‘POISE NOW: 8 Steps to Winning Conversations’

Anti-Bullying Policies – Fit for Purpose?

Anti-Bullying Policies. Almost two years ago Maria, a member of a team of ten, was finding it difficult to deal with one of her colleagues Andrea. Maria said she thought Andrea appeared to not value her or take her seriously as a colleague. They had had a number of meetings with their manager, who tried to help them sort it out but to no avail. Following a routine meeting re work issues between Andrea, Maria and another colleague Margaret, Maria felt that both Andrea and Margaret were ganging up against her and felt she had to make a complaint about this.

Maria reached for the only policy document that governs how people interact and get along in the organisation – the ‘anti-bullying’ or euphemistically entitled ‘Dignity at Work’ policy. She made an official complaint about Andrea and Margaret. It took about fourteen months to run the bullying investigation, which also involved evidence-taking from other colleagues as ‘witnesses’. The complaint was not upheld although the investigator did comment at the level of antipathy between Maria and her colleague Andrea. One of the investigation recommendations was ‘mediation’ between the parties. However, when I met with them recently, both Andrea and Margaret are too angry, frustrated as well as very hurt about what they view as a spurious allegation of ‘bullying’ against them to participate meaningfully in a mediation process. So all three continue to work in the same team, barely greeting each other and tension which could be cut with a knife.

Damage to Rebuilding Working Relationship

This is a typical example of many scenarios in which I have been asked to intervene to ‘rebuild relationships’. It is a task that I always liken to closing the barn door after the proverbial horse has bolted. Key challenges in these situations include the amount of time it has taken to investigate as well as the adversarial nature of investigation, both of which polarise the parties’ relationship.

There is however another significant barrier to rebuilding any kind of meaningful working relationships between the parties: Having to overcome the damage done by framing of the situation as an allegation of ‘bullying’ One cannot blame this on an individual who is feeling distressed about a working relationship. After all, the only ‘vehicle’ to deal with workplace conflict of all shapes and sizes in the workplace is a policy that is focused on prevention of this phenomenon known as ‘bullying’.

Language Shapes Reality

While the Health and Safety Authority’s definition of ‘bullying’ makes reference to ‘repeated inappropriate behaviour…undermining…dignity at work’, the commonplace understanding of this term holds much harsher connotations. A typical dictionary definition is ‘…the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others’. Even onomatopoetically, the term is suggestive of behaviour that is quite malevolent and vicious, and not accurate in addressing many of the typical conflict behaviours that can occur where people are in conflict in all workplaces.

How About an Anti-‘Dossing’ Policy?

As an analogy, imagine if there was an ‘Anti-Dossing’ policy and the moment anyone’s workplace performance seemed to fall below expectations, a complaint was launched about them and they then had to prove that they weren’t ‘Dossers’. Of course we wouldn’t countenance such an approach, as well as being unconstructive and contrary to all sorts of positive approaches to people management that current best practice, it is also bordering on derogatory and discriminatory. Yet we tolerate the use of the term ‘bullying’ in a policy that’s used to deal with everything from the relatively rare instances of deliberate and predatory behaviour to all sorts of reactive and ‘normal’ (albeit unwelcome) conflict responses.

Little Benefit to Either Complainant or Accused

Yet in respect to workplace behaviours, the only policy guidance is around ‘anti-bullying’. Forcing the complainant to frame their issues in this way fosters a victim/perpetrator paradigm. In this, the innocent and defenceless complainant is the butt of powerful, targeted, dignity-stripping behaviours ‘perpetrated’ by a nasty and malicious person in the workplace. This seductive narrative reinforces a disempowering identity for the complainant as well as enabling them to avoid taking responsibility for any of their own contribution to the dynamic. Undoubtedly, there are situations where there is a genuine victim and perpetrator but both anecdotal and research evidence indicate that this pertains in the minority of complaints.

Neither is it useful for the person who gets accused of ‘bullying’. A complaint about someone under ‘Dignity at Work’ will be perceived by them as an accusation of ‘being a bully’. This provokes defensiveness and rather than prompting them to perhaps reflect on how they might have contributed, they are more consumed with proving ‘they’re not a bully’. They will also feel unjustly judged and branded which similarly invites a sense of victimhood. In the case cited above, both of those complained about were angry not only at Andrea but also at the ‘system’ because they believe it has facilitated the wrongdoing and doesn’t offer them any way of really clearing their ‘good name’.

While the suggestion of mediation to help them problem-solve and bring a future focus to their difficulties is well-meaning, the bullying–focused complaints policy has greatly limited its prospects of success.

What Could Be Changed?

There is no doubt, there are instances of ‘bullying’ behaviour in the workplace and guidelines to recognise and deal with these need to be in place. However, the overall policy framework needs to be more positively framed. Despite some softer-sounding titles (‘Dignity at Work, ‘Positive Working Environment’) most policies emphasise the negative with long detailed examples of ‘bullying behaviours’ and the impact of ‘bullying’. A more constructive approach would be to build in detailed examples of behaviours that would be desirable as well as information on conflict responses, the dynamics of conflict and tools and tips to help people recognise and deal with such situations.

Policies should focus on supporting people to raise concerns and normalise the fact that working relationships may not always run smoothly. It should also be clear that the term ‘bullying’ refers to behaviours at the high end of the spectrum of ‘unwelcome’.
The term ‘grievance’ and ‘Grievance Policy’ is now frequently used to deal with complaints about terms and conditions as opposed to workplace behaviours. Yet as a relatively neutral and non-threatening term it might better serve as a basis for a complaints framework to address workplace behaviours also.

There is no doubt that people do engage at times in highly inappropriate and bullying behaviours towards one another and workplaces need to guard against this. However blanket application of the ‘bullying’ term to every ‘conflict’ at work is a surefire way to escalate rather than improve working relationships.

How Conflict Competent Are Staff in Your Organisation?

When I ask people in training courses and workshops to cite some images or associations they have with the concept of ‘conflict’, I usually get a whole list of negatives (angry, war, hate, stress…) and very few positives. ‘I don’t like conflict’ is a common refrain, so I do my best to avoid it’. Yet if we think about it, how realistic is it to want to avoid all potential conflict situations?

What is conflict after all but a situation where people have different viewpoints, with a bit of emotional attachment thrown in. So whether the project should be done my way or yours could cause conflict, less likely are diverse views as to which hobbies or wine we prefer. In every workplace, where there are on-going and interdependent relationships with a variety of viewpoints on how and what should be done, conflict is inevitable.

If we don’t view conflict as inevitable, then ask yourself – should most staff/managers be able to do any of the following?

  • Raise issues with a team member or a direct report that could be potentially contentious?
  • Hold others accountable for work tasks agreed and set?
  • Give constructive feedback?
  • Negotiate and influence others with integrity and respect?
  • Be able to integrate a variety of perspectives and viewpoints in problem-solving discussions?
  • Able to use probing questions to get at the essence of what’s being communicated by another person?
  • Be able to play the ball rather than the ‘man’/’woman’ when a disagreement arises

The above list of skills occur daily in many people’s jobs – certainly for those at management level. They also encompass core skills and knowledge in the area of ‘conflict management’.
Most management/leadership courses offer one day or one module on ‘conflict management’ but it’s frequently not considered a core organisational value or competency, to be continuously improved and fostered for all staff.

In order to be able to effectively engage with people around issues that need to be talked about, it’s essential to have ongoing support and review of a measurable set of ‘managing conflict’ competencies, just like any other essential components of the job.

Why it’s so important:

In a 2008 CIPD survey of 660 HR practitioners, almost half found they have to manage conflict at work ‘frequently or continually’, taking on average almost 4 hours per week. Yet almost a third of companies provide no training for staff in this area. Similarly a 2013 CIPD report cited managing difficult conversations to be ‘the most frequent skill gap for front-line supervisors by HR professionals’.

There is a significant body of research in recent years (IBEC, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development etc.) citing the importance of ensuring line managers are conflict competent.

As Thomas Crumm (1987) states ‘It’s not whether you have conflict in your life, it’s what you do with it that conflict that makes a difference’. Avoiding the high costs of destructive conflict means ensuring staff and managers have the skills, knowledge and attitudes to engage with and manage the inevitable conflicts that arise in every workplace.

Read more about core Conflict Competencies for Managers and Leaders here

Got an issue you are grappling with…? Mary Rafferty’s services include coaching, mediation and training in conflict related areas such as mastering difficult conversations and navigating tricky relationships.

Check out some more resources here or download the Complimentary Guide in the sidebar.

Empowering People to Resolve Bullying Issues

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.



Managing ‘Difficult’ Behaviour – Are You Walking on Eggshells?

‘All those ideas around conflict resolution are really great Mary, but what about ‘difficult behaviour’ – someone who just won’t sit down and talk things through in a reasonable way…how are you supposed to deal with them?’ This was the comment of a client in a recent team conflict case. She described herself as constantly ‘walking on eggshells’ around this colleague.
It’s a great metaphor, conveys the huge effort that it must take to constantly monitor your actions and words so you don’t crack the ever so fragile shell. And the fear that if you do, you will, like Humpty Dumpty just fall off the wall and break into a million pieces.

So what do you do if you find yourself working with someone who brings up those thoughts or feelings for you?

  • Take ownership of your own internal reactions to this situation. If you are tiptoeing around someone, it’s likely that there is a measure of fearfulness or anxiety going on for you – it’s you who are seeing ‘egg-shells’ where there should be solid ground. While the other person’s behaviours are beyond your control, your reactions to this are actually of your own making – though it probably doesn’t feel like that. The most important aspect of these kind of interactions is to be clear-headed and strong in your own sense of yourself and not take on the negative energy – be it tone, body language, comments, arguments – that this person is sending.
  • Stop taking their behaviour personally. Your feelings of fear comes from unmet expectations about how they should behave or treat you. Realise that they may have difficulties meeting these expectations and while it’s not pleasant or the behaviour may even be unacceptable, the first step is getting really clear in your mind that it’s ‘not about you’. Notice if you are engaging in ‘victim’ thinking and take charge of this – the sooner you stop resisting and feeling put upon by this person in this situation, the sooner you will start to adapt and find ways to deal with it effectively.
  • Set positive intentions around any communication that you have with them and how you would like to be in these interactions. Frequently in situations like these, we spend a lot of time ruminating on some previous negative interaction that we might have experienced or observed and visualising further negative stories around the next time we meet them or have to talk to them. Replace these negative thinking patterns with positive ones for example make a detailed list of how you would like to be engaging with them. For example you might choose words like ‘professional’, ‘courteous’, ‘friendly’, ‘centred’, ‘unfazed’, ‘calm’, ‘clear’, ‘having my limits’. Reinforce these words by perhaps writing them down or putting them up on the wall and ‘meditating’ on them before a meeting you might be having.
  • If you have to raise an issue that might be contentious, start by communicating your positive intentions. These will be two fold: positive intentions of respectful interaction and relationship towards them and positive intentions around respecting each of your key goals and interests in relation to the substantial issue you are trying to sort out. For example if both of you are teachers and you need to speak to them about a timetabling issue around students, you might frame your opening sentence something like: ‘I would like to chat to you about the timetabling of the xx subjects. I know that each of us might see this differently and that that does not upset our working relationship or that either of us feel disrespected. Also, my intentions are around ensuring the students are best served by both of us”.
  • During the discussion, as well as focusing on communicating the content of your viewpoints, be watchful for how they are reacting to what you are saying. Notice if they are becoming defensive – either in their tone, body language, words etc. – it can also be likely that things they might be saying are making you feel somewhat defensive. This is where you need to slow down completely and in a sense step back from the content part of the conversation and work on bringing the discussion back to a calmer and friendlier tone.
  • Take a few deep breaths to centre yourself and remind yourself of your key intention words up above. Make a statement that reiterates your intentions for the discussion: Say something like ‘I can see that we both have strong opinions on this and I want to make sure that each of us gets a clear understanding of where we are coming from’
  • Make a statement that acknowledges that they might feel you were undermining them e.g. ‘I don’t want you to think that in requesting this change I don’t value your needs/contributions/issues, my purpose is that we make the best decision for all concerned’
  • Invite them to help you understand better where they are coming from and take time to check that you have fully understood ‘I’m still not clear on what the difficulties are that you have with changing the times…what is it that’s most important to you…? And follow this up with ‘So am I right in thinking that what you think is most important is xx?’
  • Contrast both of your viewpoints in a neutral, non-judgemental way… ‘So your viewpoint is that the students need xxx, whereas I see it somewhat differently, that the students would be better suited to an earlier time/subject/xxx…So our task is to find a way to ensure that all these needs are satisfied to the best extent…let’s chat further about that’
  • If the discussion does escalate despite your best efforts or get side-tracked into other unrelated ‘red herrings’, some things you can do are:
    Work very hard on remaining calm and centred, this will be the best way to ensure that you act in line with the key values and intentions that you have set for yourself and leave you less vulnerable to feeling hurt or frustrated by them

    • Say ‘Look, this is a tricky issue for us both, let’s take a break and see if we can sort it later’
    • Say ‘I can see that you have raised a number of other matters that I don’t feel are relevant. Also I want to make sure we stay respectful to each other. Let’s see if we can just sort out this particular issue and that each of us feels heard and understood, even if we don’t agree’
    • Say ‘It’s looking like our conversation isn’t working out, my proposal is that we ask the Manager to make a decision (or whatever other ‘arm-twisting’ options that you might have available to you at this stage)
  • Check out these two posts Try an EAR and a BIFF and Do You Know a HCP for further ideas


Bullying and Harassment – Informal Support from Contact Persons

Bullying and harassment in the workplace continue to be one of the most challenging forms of interpersonal difficulties that arise in the workplace. As part of an organisation’s bullying prevention policy, the Health and Safety Authority Code of Practice (2007) in Ireland recommends that employers should name a ‘Contact Person’, whose role is to ‘listen and advise about complaints of bullying at work and explain the procedures in place to resolve it’ (Section 5.3).

How might an organisation go about incorporating this recommendation in their anti-bullying and harassment policy and what benefits might it have?

The Contact Person role is usually defined as providing emotional support and information in a confidential, non-judgmental and off-the-record to any member of staff who ‘believes that he or she is being treated in a bullying manner’. It can also be a support to someone who has been subject to a complaint of bullying or harassment.

Key tasks of the role usually include:

  • Active listening and providing supportive empathy:
    This is one of the key tasks of the role. Allowing the person to speak about their experiences and feel heard can be therapeutic in itself and gives them a feeling of being accepted and not judged. Speaking about their experience also helps a person to clarify and organize their thoughts. It is an essential pre-cursor to looking at options and possible solutions and making decisions for action.
  • Explore options and consequences of these:
    The Contact Person uses open questions to help the person think through their options and what actions they might take. They will outline and explain the procedures available to them in the Bullying Prevention and Harassment/Sexual Harassment Complaint Procedures and help them evaluate the implications of any choices they might make.
  • Empower/coach towards next step:
    This is where the Contact Person uses basic coaching questions to help the employee take the next step. It also involves checking back with them to ensure that they are on track with whatever actions they planned to take. Recruitment of Contact Persons is usually by approaching a small cadre of people who have already demonstrated skills or interest in support roles e.g. trades union officials, health and safety officials, persons with ‘good’ people skills, counsellors, human resources personnel. Some organisations ‘advertise’ the role to all employees and use an interview process to then select the most suitable for the role. A short one or two day training is usually provided.

Meetings between the Contact Person and the person seeking support should normally take place during normal working hours and in a suitable location where privacy can be assured. The Contact Person will not retain any notes or records of these discussions. No more than 3-4 sessions with any one individual should ever be needed. More than this could mean the Contact Person is being drawn into a counselling relationship.


  • It gives people access to a confidential compassionate, objective and supportive listener whom they can talk through their difficulties and get objective information without having to raise the matter at a more official level such as speaking to a manager or HR
  • Getting support with a complaint or conflict situation at an early stage increases the chances of the matter getting resolved rather than ending up in an adversarial and protracted investigation process
  • It is a clear demonstration of an organisation’s commitment to a preventing and pro-actively addressing workplace bullying.


  • The Contact Persons need to be trained and facilitated to time away from their normal work tasks in order to provide support to those seeking their help
  • When introducing the Contact Person option, there needs to be an awareness-raising programme to make staff aware of the option of accessing a Contact Person as well the limits of their role
  • The limitations of the role could be a drawback. The Contact Person role cited in the Industrial Relations Act 1990 Code of Practice 2002 also involved approaching the person complained against and seeking to resolve the issue in an informal low-key manner. In Northern Ireland, a similar role Harassment Advisor still carries out this task. Being able to implement a mini-mediation intervention informally and confidentially at an early stage can nip situations in the bud and avoid greater levels of stress and upset for all involved.

Contact us for more information or check out our training courses for Contact Persons – download Course Programme

Constructive Conflict: Are You an ‘I’ Statement or a ‘You’ Statement Person?

To what extent do you engage in constructive conflict?
Think about the last time you got annoyed or frustrated with someone…

What are the odds that silently or perhaps even aloud, your response was to along the lines of ‘You are unreliable’ or ‘You shouldn’t do x’ . So often when we are annoyed or frustrated with someone, our immediate response is to focus on them. We get into blame and labelling mode and use what is termed a ‘You’ statement, i.e. ‘You are..’.

A more effective way, however, of approaching this situation is to use what are termed ‘I’ statements, a concept which originated from the work of Dr Thomas Gordon, a cornerstone of his ‘Leader Effectiveness’ and ‘Parent Effectiveness’ programmes.

An ‘I’ statement simply

  • describes (rather than evaluates) the behaviour,
  • how this has impacted on you (or relevant situation) and
  • what it is you would need the from other person to sort it out.

‘You are unreliable’ might therefore be framed as ‘When you didn’t complete the work as you promised, I couldn’t finish my piece and the client was unhappy with our service.

But, I hear you say…shouldn’t we be laying it on the line for people if they have messed up and anyhow, this is just adding a bit of icing sugar, talking around the real problem and not facing hard truths.

Well, no, shifting from a ‘You’ to and ‘I’ focus in how you frame and express a concern is not just a question of semantics – swapping around the pronouns a bit. Rather it fosters a fundamental shift in how you think about and approach a situation that’s bothering you.

Here’s why it works so much better:

  • ‘You statements’ often tend to generalise and characterise a behaviour or set of behaviours so the person listening doesn’t have any real clarity on what it is exactly they have done that doesn’t work. Compare ‘you are incompetent’ to ‘I get frustrated when I have to ask you a number of times to redo the task. I need you to …’
  • ‘You’ statements tend to put the listener on a much more defensive footing than an ‘I’ statement. So rather than being open to a change that you might request from them, you have actually increased their resistance.
  • ‘You’ statements shift the listener’s focus onto negativity and anger towards you the speaker rather than helping them understand clearly what’s required.
  • For the speaker, by choosing an ‘I’ statement, you get to stay in your ‘own head’. This means you are putting energy into something you have influence over – your own needs and how best to have them met. Contrast this to the frustration of focusing outward on something you have less influence and control on – someone else’s behaviour.
  • Sometimes you cannot change the other person – you either don’t have the influence or they are not for changing, for whatever reason. So rather than getting frustrated at them, you can get clear on your own key needs and find another route to meet them.
  • And finally, a ‘You statement’ lets the speaker completely off the hook. It’s so much easier to simply label and dismiss the other person rather than considering perhaps how I might have contributed. Easier yes, but ultimately, gives no learning and probably no change for either you or them.

Tips to Manage High Conflict People

Last month I wrote about dealing with what is termed ‘high conflict’ behaviours and outlined some of the theory that might underpin such behaviour. So here are some concrete approaches to managing such situations.

1. Don’t take the ‘bait: The number one ‘rule’ as it were in dealing with someone who is being perhaps rude, unpleasant or telling you in an unconstructive way that you are the cause of the problem, is to resist the temptation to argue back to defend yourself against the points they are making. This is of course easier said than done. When we are being ‘attacked’, we are of course programmed to ‘defend’. That’s why Robert Bacall’s analogy which likens this behaviour to a piece of bait being dangled, and which if we ‘bite’, we are drawn into equally unconstructive arguing back, is very helpful. So think of their outburst as a red herring that you are not going to be fooled by.

2. Go for an E.A.R.: Think to yourself – when you are angry with someone, what do you need most that might help you get a bit calmer? Most people need acknowledgement, someone to listen to them, to feel understood, to feel heard. An upset and angry person cannot problem solve. So the first thing required is de-escalation. One approach to this is by using what Bill Eddy terms an ‘E.A.R. Statement’. E.A.R. stands for empathy, attention and respect, so it’s about saying something that conveys that you are attempting in some way to empathise or understand that they are upset and that you are respectful in your words or how you convey it. It’s not about agreeing with the person ‘yes I see you are right about this’ rather something like ‘I can understand that you are annoyed and you feel it has been very frustrating for you’. So you are acknowledging but not agreeing with them.

3. Get clear in your mind what your intentions are: to get the situation sorted. If you are motivated to try and ‘teach them a lesson’ or get your own back then you are less likely to get the problem they have solved and much more likely to cause an escalation. Helping people realise they are in the wrong is a difficult task even when they are calm and somewhat receptive to hearing this, so don’t your time trying to do it with someone who is highly charged. Then use active listening and questioning skills to help you get clear on what it is their key needs and interests are beneath all their blaming and positional statements.

4. Respond with a B.I.F.F.: Another of Bill Eddy’s achronisms and sounds just like what you might feel like giving someone who’s on the attack! Well it stands for a Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm response. The essential message is not to get drawn into long argumentative and explanatory responses, rather you ensure you convey clearly, concisely but in neutral language your viewpoint or the information you need to convey.

6. Move them out of the ’emotional’ part of the brain: High Conflict People reside a huge amount of the time in this part of their minds. They are on high alert monitoring the environment for anything that might threaten their needs or sense of themselves. Strategic use of ‘logic’ questions can help to move them into the thinking or rational part of the brain. Such questions can range from ‘what time did x happen’ or ‘what’s your account number’ to ‘what three things do you need from this’ or ‘what’s your suggestion on how we can sort this out’ – all depending on the context of course.

5. Convey your willingness to help and a sense that you are being supportive by offering if you can a choice between a couple of options. Not only are you demonstrating co-operativeness, you are also getting them into the rational task of thinking and having to evaluate choices.

6. Set limits: Where necessary, set limits on the behaviour but try to do this in a matter of fact way rather than being either threatening or superior about it. So the tone of this message is critical. The same words ‘I want to help you sort it but I need you to speak in a calmer tone of voice’ can be very provocative if delivered with a wagging finger compared to a neutral, friendly tone.

So let’s take an example. Peter is a colleague who has a tendency to be very argumentative and challenging about everything and seem to have limited ability to discuss something in a reasonable way. You were meant to pass on an email last week but forgot. Peter comes bursting into your office, looking very cross and speaking in a raised tone about this. ‘I can’t believe you didn’t send that email – you are always forgetting things and it makes me look terrible now in front of the customers. This is a serious error and it’s all your fault. You are completely inefficient …etc etc.’

Here’s an example of how you might implement the tips above:
You initially give eye contact, listening, remaining calm and silent for a few sentences. Then you could try “I can see this has caused a huge upset…I see you feel you have been put in a very difficult position with the customer…Can I just check to get clear on what exactly has happened…an email came that I was meant to pass on…?” Peter might now start up again saying how he is always having to deal with these situations because you never send on emails on time etc. Here you would try a little BIFF.: “Just to clarify Peter, this is the first time I haven’t passed on an email. I understand it is frustrating for you with the customer and I’m happy to look at getting it resolved as soon as possible” (Little aside: Sybil from Fawlty Towers, dealing with her beloved Basil comes to mind here but you need to drop her superior tone please!)
In terms of choices you might say “In order to sort it out, the customer needs to be contacted and the matter remedied. If you wish, I am happy to contact them and explain the mix-up or would you prefer to do this?”

That’s just one example, but of course it all depends on the person and the context. Try it and let me know how you get on or what other approaches have worked for you.

Do You Know a High Conflict Person?

One of the challenges I came up against early on in my mediation career is how best to work with and support others in dealing with, a situation where a person didn’t seem able to be reasonable or engage in collaborative behaviours. Rather there seemed to be constant defensiveness and an unwillingness to accept some level of responsiblity for their contribution to a situation. In fact, they excelled at making the other person feel they were at fault.

My own personal experience of a couple of these situations led me to the work of Bill Eddy who has coined the phrase HCP – High Conflict Personalities as a way of characterising people who display these patterns of behaviour. While I’m averse to defining people by labels and sterotypes and a firm believer that we all engage in unco-operative behaviours at times, his approach has two very useful aspects. First of all he gives a context for this behaviour – that it’s a function of the person themselves rather than the issue or the other party in the situation. Secondly, he outlines some very useful strategies for dealing with it. But simply realising that it’s them not you and understanding why is very helpful for someone on the receiving end of such behaviours to depersonalise it.

A useful model for helping to understand people’s unconstructive behaviours in conflict is is that they arise because the amydala, the part of the brain that is wired to detect and protect us from threat and harm is activated. Our drive for survival leads us to engage in ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ reactions, which in a case of real danger is appropriate. However, according to Eddy, in his book ‘It’s not your fault’, HCP’s have what he terms a Mistaken Assessment of Danger – M.A.D. – easy to remember that one! So in essence, they interpret an unwarranted threat to their identity where there might merely be a difference of opinion or someone expressing another point of view.

This idea of a compelling drive to defend and protect oneself by any means is also reflected in the theory that Laura Crawshaw (a.k.a. The Boss Whisperer!) in her book ‘Taming the Abrasive Manager’. Her take on the clients she works with is that they are motivated by an intense need to ensure they ‘survive’ in terms of their reputation and will use any means to secure this.

Eddy goes on to see parallels with traits of personality disorders in these kinds of behavioural patterns. He cites four sub-conscious fears that underpin these behaviours: fear of abandonnment, fear of being ignored, fear of being dominated, fear of being inferior.

So HCP’s are in amygdala overdrive most of the time, misreading signals and reacting to this. Think of the amydala as a smoke alarm, it’s not meant to go off and cause an immediate response unless there is a fire but if it isn’t working properly, it can start to beep at the slightest air particles. This dominance of the amydala over the thinking pre-frontal cortex part of the brain also makes for errors in how they process events leading to ‘all or nothing’ or ‘black/white’ thinking, difficulty in self-reflecting and therefore in accepting any responsiblity for the situation .

I am not trying to imply that everyone who gets angry or is unreasonable has a personality disorder. I also think that all of us have times when our amydala dominates and we have high conflict behaviours. However, I think this framework of looking at how errors in processing of events is contributing to the behaviour helps us to view it more objectively rather than getting triggered by it and either feeling we are in the wrong or reacting unconstructively ourselves.