Just say no

On staying civil in the workplace

looking up into a canopy of tall trees

There are times in the course of communicating with colleagues when you absolutely have to give yourself a good talking to and push for the high road. In other words, when the instinct is to do something that you know deep in your bones is petty, vengeful, mean, passive aggressive or deliberately confusing, just say no, not this time.

Stress, insecurity, exhaustion, low blood sugar, feeling undervalued, being treated unfairly, enduring unrealistic expectations and being under pressure are good reasons for bad behaviour. But there are no excuses for incivility in the workplace. We’re there to do a job in a positive environment, and all of us expect to avoid the burden of dealing with someone who isn’t able to keep their emotions or behaviour respectful.

Of course, when disrespectful communication becomes harassment or abuse, there are workplace policies to guide employee conduct and identify routes for support. But what we’re talking about here are those snarky little moves that can happen almost imperceptibly or be as bold as brass, perhaps masquerading as something other than what they are – words or actions that intend to leave you feeling insulted, attacked, frustrated, embarrassed, ignored or defeated.

If and when this happens, you have to decide whether you want to take the matter in hand, in private or with HR support, to identify the issue with the person and let them know how it made you feel. Their reaction may surprise you as much as it will surprise them to be confronted. Ideally, they apologize and never let it happen again. However, you’ll have to be prepared for any number of reactions, from defence to tears to aggression.

Deciding to confront – even a friendly colleague – can be difficult for both parties, which is why you want to do it mindfully, approaching the matter with empathy and the possibility of deeper drivers of the bad behaviour (we’ve all been there). Confrontation may be the route for you, or you could try to let it go and avoid giving it power over you. Taking care of yourself is the aim.

What these moments of incivility can often do, if left unchecked, is lead to your own poor communication choices. Reacting to someone’s unreasonable behaviour can, unfortunately, produce more of the same. So, when you feel like striking back and giving them a taste of their own venom, just say no. You’re above that. (Easily said, of course.) If forces conspire to tip you over the edge before you can stop it, a sincere apology – even if they started it! – can clear the air and may lead to a deeper connection between two warring parties.

It can be especially hard for communicators to block that impulse to react, when some pretty choice phrasing is within reach to defend yourself or to put an instigator in their place. But the next time you catch yourself writing a pristinely worded, less-than-civil phrase in an email (that great conflict escalator!), try saying no. Take a breath and rewrite, with impeccable phrasing and all the integrity you’re made of.

With thanks for reading,