Workplace Words That Wound

Lorie Reichel Howe

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We have all felt the sting of cutting words, the stab of sarcasm, and the sickening silence when a coworker is assaulted with a verbal bomb. When workplace word wars occur, employees become casualties, relationships are strained, and morale plummets. When verbal outbursts occur, organizational culture erodes, productivity is held hostage, and attrition skyrockets.

Whether you are a manager or a copy clerk, being told to address a behavior without a strategy for doing so is as helpful as receiving a disturbing medical diagnosis without care instructions, surgery options, or a recovery plan.

Let's face it: when conflicts escalate and issues arise, managers and staff run to HR. While individuals with concerns need to own their issues and release any expectation that HR will magically make their problem go away, they also need strategies for safely dialoguing with their offender. Since relational breakdowns are inevitable in every human group—including the work-family—HR, management, and all employees need first responder training in effectively addressing harmful zingers, jabs, and verbal bombs. Let's explore some ways to respond to these behaviors.

Scenario

Let's imagine a manager approaches HR, uncertain how to have a conversation with a frustrated employee named Kendall. The Help Desk has just informed Kendall that they received her report request and, due to complications with the new system software installation, should expect a two-day delay in technical support. Upon reading the Help Desk's response, Kendall blurts out the following:

"The Help Desk department should be renamed the Helpless Department."

Request Clarification

In a calm and firm manner, ask Kendall to please share the words she said about the Help Desk. Also, ask her to explain what she meant by these words. In doing this, you invite Kendall to self-reflect, and you avoid accusing, lecturing, or judging. The desired outcome of this activity is self-reflection and ownership of behaviors.

Acknowledge the Person's Concerns and Needs

During a conflict, our human tendency is to experience frustration, anger, and fear. When these feelings exist, it's difficult for us to listen to someone's perspective, especially a perspective different than our own. Being understood is an anger diffuser. Even so, it is not a fix-all solution.


Acknowledging concerns and needs does not mean you approve of harmful behavior. This acknowledgment simply means you understand what motivated the behavior.

Communicate Positive Wants or Desires for Those Involved

People are more open to working with you when they believe you care about them and desire a positive outcome for them. It is assuring to know someone cares about you, especially when you've acted impulsively and inappropriately spoken. One way to communicate caring is to verbalize that you would like Kendall to get technical support in a reasonable time so she can complete her work. In addition, share your positive desire for Help Desk: for them to have a more manageable caseload and not be buried under tech glitches from a new system upgrade. Lastly, include your desire for a positive work environment where everyone in the department respectfully addresses concerns.

Bring Awareness of the Impact of Words and Actions

Effective communicators help others understand the impact of their words and actions. Share with Kendall that when you hear a comment that the company should rename the Help Desk Department to the Helpless Department, it seems like she is attacking the department. Share the impact of this comment, identifying that comments like these can create a negative work environment and divide departments instead of unifying them within the organization. Share your concern that when people hear comments like this, they feel attacked and disrespected, and once negativity spreads, it is hard to stop.

Invite Brainstorming: a Different Way to Respond

Having shared impact, ask Kendall if there are avenues other than Help Desk where she can obtain support. In asking Kendall to brainstorm, you help her move from attacking others to problem-solving. This is what you want Kendall to do the next time she is frustrated.

Request an Agreement That Behavior Will Not Occur Moving Forward, and Identify Next Steps

After discussing what happened and the impact it had, it is equally important to get an agreement of behavior in the future from Kendall. Ask her to commit to respectfully verbalizing future concerns (without attacking). Ask Kendall what (or if) a follow-up action needs to occur. You could phrase this as a question asking Kendall if she believes she needs to do something in order to bring peace back to the department. Ask Kendall what she believes her coworkers need to hear from her.

If you expect an apology for follow-up action from Kendall, clearly communicate this along with any consequences that will result from her behavior and whether documentation will occur. Avoid surprising someone in the future during a performance review.

Company-Wide Need for Relational Response Training

While first-aid kits are available for minor physical injuries, and employees can make 911 calls for medical emergencies, relational first-aid office kits do not exist. All employees, managers, and HR staff need first responder training in effectively addressing harmful workplace zingers, jabs, and verbal bombs.

Lorie Reichel Howe is the founder of Conversations in the Workplace. She leverages over 20 years of expertise in communication and relationship management. She teaches managers and teams to have "safe conversations"—transformative dialogue that uncovers hidden workplace issues. These conversations foster greater innovation, inclusion, and collaboration within the organization.

Lorie has diverse career experience as an educator, leadership development trainer, mediator, and conflict coach. Learn more about Lorie's impact at www.ConversationsIntheWorkplace.com

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