Crucial Conversations QA

Foul Language at Work—To Confront or Not to Confront?

Dear David,

I’m in my sixties, and it bothers me when I hear people in the office using what I consider to be foul language, most often the “F-word”. This happens when they are on the phone having personal conversations and sometimes in internal office meetings. This language seems ingrained in the younger employees, and I doubt they have any idea it can be offensive. I have mentioned this to Human Resources, but they have more pressing concerns. Have we moved to the point where the “F-bomb” is just an accepted part of speech, even in the business environment?

Signed,
Seeking Decorum

Dear Seeking,

What a wonderful question! You prompted me to dig into the science of swearing. Thanks, I think . . . Here is a bit of what I’ve learned:

First, norms differ depending on context and industry. Words that fit in the pool hall are unacceptable in church. Language that is okay on the construction site isn’t okay in the front office or with customers. Your colleagues who use profanity on the phone with their friends may not be mindful that they are still at work. Informal contexts including, perhaps, your internal office meetings also allow for more language leeway. And certainly our work environments have become more informal—in office design, decoration, clothing, hours, and language.

Second, speech evolves. Even the most offensive words tend to lose their power over time. Words that begin as verbal assaults that hurt, shock, and break taboos become less shocking with repetition. Profanity becomes street talk and enters the mainstream. Finally, profane words become commonplace—they lose their profanity. This evolution is seen in words such as bloody, blazes, and bull, which were considered vile in the 1800’s but are toothless today.

So where is the F-word on this progression? The Parents Television Council measured the frequency of different profane words used on TV shows. Their data showed a 2,409 percent increase in the F-word (bleeped, of course) over the five-year period from 2005 to 2010. If they measured F-word frequency again this year, I bet they’d find it has increased another 2,000 percent or more. It’s a word we now hear routinely.

Third, swear words can and have been categorized. The main categories are related to: religion, parentage, body parts and bodily functions, sex, and defamation of groups. Over the last fifty years or so, the curses and obscenities related to the first four of these categories, including the F-word, have lost much of their power to shock and offend. But the final category, which includes racist, homophobic, and other group-based slanders have become increasingly taboo. I guess I’ll call this progress. At least we are reserving our greatest social sanctions for words that actually hurt and defame other people.

Fourth, using swear words and obscenities is a perk of power.
In our society, swearing is more acceptable for bosses than subordinates; for men than women; and for adults than children. Think of it this way: swearing is likely to offend people. Can you afford to offend the people who will hear you? High status people are more likely to answer, yes.

Okay, enough with the science. While it certainly helps to understand the state of swearing in our culture, it doesn’t mean you are simply a victim without any power to influence your own workplace. What can you do when you find people’s language offensive? Really, you have two choices. You can either tolerate it, or you can speak up.

Tolerating: If you decide to tolerate the language, you will have to put your resentment behind you. The risk is that you will feel like a victim, and your annoyance will show on your face and in your blood pressure. Instead, decide that the offensive word means nothing to you—that it’s no longer offensive. The word has already lost its meaning to your colleagues who are using it. They don’t intend to offend you when they use it, so don’t take offense.

Speaking Up: Even though the F-word is everywhere and has lost much of its power to shock, you are still well within your rights to ask your colleagues to avoid it. But you need to make your request in a way that doesn’t offend them. Remember, the word means nothing to them, so your request may sound prudish or condescending. Begin with a contrast statement that clarifies you are NOT accusing them of being insensitive, rude, or obnoxious. Then make your request. It might sound something like this:

“In meetings and when you’re on the phone, you often use the F-word, and I can’t help but hear it. I know you don’t mean anything by it, but I don’t think it fits in our work environment. Would you mind making the effort to avoid it at work?”

Please let me know what you decide to try and how it works for you.

Best,
David

Kerrying On

You’re Not A Good Enough Actor

In the early 1980s, I slowly transitioned from teaching MBA classes to designing corporate training programs. Surprisingly, with this change in focus, my design partners and I soon found ourselves in, of all places, Hollywood—not the glamorous version that produces dazzling movies, but the not-so-glamorous version that produces industrial videos.

Here’s what took us to Tinsel Town. Our typical training design project consisted of following around top-performing leaders and watching how they handled challenges such as missed deadlines. From these observations, we extracted behavioral tactics (best practices) that we could teach to other leaders. The down-side being that merely talking in a training session about these valuable tactics required trainers to be gifted at describing behaviors and trainees to be talented at turning abstractions into action. Instead, we opted to demonstrate the skills on video—which took us to Hollywood.

As you might suspect, this demand to produce and direct mini-movies of leaders in action called for a huge change in the lives of training designers. My colleagues and I knew a fair amount about social science theory and practice but little about video production. Okay, we knew nothing about video production.

With time and coaching, we eventually figured out how to develop video snippets that could be used in our training but, sadly, not ones that suited everybody. Our acting team appeared a bit too white-collar. To balance out the mix, we needed to find an actor who could embody someone who was used to getting his hands dirty at work (for clients who did just that). One evening, after watching the sitcom Alf on TV, it struck me that John LaMotta, the talented actor who played the role of Alf’s neighbor Trevor Ochmonek, would be perfect for the part of a heavy-duty production worker. I called him, sent him a script, and picked him up at the airport a few weeks later to join our acting troupe as we began work on a new video project.

The next morning, I directed the first rehearsal. When it came time for John to—in his own words—“make magic,” he stormed onto the set. The situation was simple. John portrayed a gruff-looking production worker whose co-worker had failed to deliver materials to him on time—causing him problems. John’s job was to resolve the issue. To keep the scene fresh, I gave John no direction except to deliver his lines in a way that felt comfortable to him. I wanted John to calmly describe the problem in a respectful and professional way, but would he interpret the scene in that manner? Time would tell.

With the shout of “Action!” John walked onto the set, hit his mark, and delivered his opening line: “You said you’d have product to me by noon, but it never arrived. What happened?” Note: the script we had written contained no inflammatory words, insults, threats, or attacks—just a simple description of the problem followed by a diagnostic question. John delivered the correct words—no problem there—but he said them with such force and disgust that the other actor nearly melted.

“Cut!” I shouted as I leaped into the set and explained to John that he sounded furious and needed to try the scene anew but without the acrimony. Once again, I didn’t tell John how to interpret the script because I had been taught that if you over-direct, or worse still, show actors the delivery you want, they tend to mimic your performance and you lose their unique interpretation.

This time, John walked onto the set with his arms folded, slowly circled the other actor, shook his head in utter disgust, and delivered his line in a deadly whisper. It was chilling. For the third take, John poked the fellow with his massive index finger. Thump, thump, thump. It hurt just watching. Next, John sneered at the other actor so malignantly that it caused a camera operator to flinch.

For another five takes, John found five new ways to accost his coworker while I patiently waited for him to deliver an opening line that would lead to a respectful discussion. Each time, John expressed the same neutral words we had written but with new punitive body twitches, facial tics, and voice fluctuations that turned what should have been a professional, problem-solving conversation into an attack.

Finally, I gave up. I broke the rule of offering minimum direction by telling John that the fellow who had let him down was his good friend and that John was curious as to why his coworker hadn’t delivered the goods on time.

“He’s my friend, and I’m curious?” John repeated. “Yup,” I answered.

Then John delivered the lines perfectly—clearly, correctly, and full of respect.

This experience affected every scene I’ve directed from that day forward. It has also influenced how my partners and I teach how to deal with disappointments, infractions, and bad behavior. No matter how talented an actor you believe you are, if you choose to talk to others about infractions while retaining negative thoughts about how they fowled-up, your harsh judgments invariably creep into your body and facial movements. You can try to be nice, but some part of you (seemingly of its own accord) tenses up and you look upset. First a strained smile, then a contortion of the muscles in your neck, then a tapping foot, then a vein madly pulsing in your forehead—all implying a threat—all reflecting your underlying negative judgment. If you were playing poker, you’d call these revealing reactions “tells”—slight body movements or facial expressions that give away your underlying emotion (in John’s case, disappointment and anger).

John taught us that if you desire to respectfully deal with people who have let you down or behaved badly, you can’t focus solely on managing the “tells” that so readily take over your body. It’s insufficient. As soon as you fix one tell, another one replaces it. So you have to work on your underlying thinking by replacing harsh judgments with genuine curiosity. If not, no matter how nice or “professionally” you think you’re behaving, or how under control you feel, your body is emitting signals that plainly reveal your underlying disappointment, disrespect, and disgust.

So, start problem-solving discussions with sincere respect for the individual who has taken a misstep. Take care to maintain a healthy curiosity regarding the circumstances. If you assume the best—not the worst—of others, the correct body language (from a relaxed jaw to a pleasant tone) will naturally follow. In short, don’t condemn others in your heart and then try to mask your harsh judgments one “tell” at a time. You’re not a good enough actor to pull it off. John certainly wasn’t—and the same is true for the rest of us.

Crucial Conversations QA

Feasting with Unruly Relatives

The following article was first published on November 17, 2010.

Dear Crucial Skills,

With the holidays quickly approaching, I have found myself caught in a sucker’s choice with my family. My wife and I have made it a tradition to travel to my parents’ home seven hours away for Thanksgiving. This year, my parents informed me that my sister will also stay there. My sister is a drug addict and has been in and out of jail for thirty years. Every time she gets out, she claims to clean up her life and my parents roll out the red carpet to help her. When she returns to her destructive patterns, they turn a blind eye.

For years, this has caused all kinds of problems between my parents and five siblings. I would love to keep my tradition of spending Thanksgiving with my parents, but I don’t feel comfortable staying in the same home with my sister. It’s a rural area so there are no hotels or other arrangements available.

I see only two options: either continue with the tradition and hate the experience (which could also be potentially dangerous), or forgo the tradition and hurt my relationship with my parents. I can’t find a win-win here. Please help.

Signed,
Stuck

Dear Stuck,

If you’ll give me some latitude, I’m going to wax philosophical and share my perspective on the purpose of life. My goal is not to persuade you that my view of life is right, but simply to share one perspective that gives context to my suggestions.

In my view, life is about achieving intimacy with those we’re inseparably connected to. Family is first and foremost in that category.

Now, how is that relevant to my dialogue with you? Because I walk in your shoes. I have dear ones who also struggle with addiction. Some of the most searing pain of my life has been watching them destroy months of progress—only to land once again in jail or on the street. Almost equally painful is watching those who care about them behave in ways that positively enable their self-destruction. It’s agonizing. And my natural reflexes toggle between an overwhelming urge to either take control of the situation or to distance myself from it.

And yet, neither impulse is consistent with my view of the purpose of my life, which is to develop the character to achieve intimacy with imperfect people. When I try to take control or distance myself from my struggling loved ones, I find that my life is the poorer and my character weakens.

When I find myself in your shoes, the question now becomes, how can I remain close in a way that exerts positive influence on those who are the most troubled?

Enough with the philosophy. So what about your situation?

First of all, you made a reference to danger. If by that you mean you might take children into a situation when your sister is using, I would decline and explain this concern to your parents. And when doing so, cleanse yourself of any intention of using this decision as a threat to get them to exclude your sister. Simply explain that you can appreciate their desire to include your sister—and hope it is a good experience for them and her—but that your children give you other considerations. You may even want to make a call on Thanksgiving Day and wish your parents and sister well so they don’t misinterpret the decision.

If you choose to participate in the Thanksgiving tradition, there are a couple of crucial conversations you’ll need to have:

1. Motives. You need to change your motives. This year may not be about peace and harmony in the home. It may be filled with uncertainty and awkwardness, but it might still be meaningful. In fact, it could be more meaningful than many others. Your goal will not be to fix your sister or to correct your parents. It will be to improve your relationships with all of them—to try to achieve greater intimacy. Doing so may increase your positive influence in the future in all their lives.

2. Boundaries. You can’t control your sister or your parents, but you can control yourself. Decide in advance what kinds of situations may play out. Then ask yourself, “If what I really want is to be a positive influence on my sister and my parents, how will I respond?” Don’t wait until the resentment of the moment hits to make this decision. Think it through in advance.

Then discuss these boundary conditions with your parents. Let them know you love them and want to be part of this holiday, and that you have your own view of how to deal with some of the potential challenges. You don’t ask that they agree with you, you just want to explain your intentions so they can understand your motives in case you behave in a way they find jarring.

For example, if your sister uses, you may choose to leave or you may call the police. Before you arrive, discuss these boundaries with your parents and see if you can come to terms on them. If you disagree in important ways, you may elect not to participate. If that is the case, do not announce that decision in a punishing way. Don’t use your decision as a way of provoking your parents to concede to you on these points. Honor their right to disagree. Affirm them. Express your love. Ask if it’s okay if you arrange another visit with them when things are simpler.

If after working through these two conversations you find yourself at the family gathering, be as good as your word. Take small steps to show love to your sister. Expose yourself to the discomfort of possible disappointment or rejection. You may well find, in some future situation, that your improved relationship with her puts you in a position of influence to help her take a steadier step toward sobriety. It may be one step forward and two steps back (it certainly has been with some of those I love).

While these situations are complex and difficult, I can tell you that this Thanksgiving, one of the blessings I will feel most intensely is the intimacy I now have with one who looked the most helpless for the longest time.

I hope I haven’t been too presumptuous. If I’ve misunderstood your situation or imposed my own views inappropriately, please forgive me and don’t let my imperfection drive distance between you and me.

Sincerely,
Joseph