Workplace Words that Wound

Lorie Reichel Howe

November 18, 2019

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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. If managers fail to respond to verbal outbursts, organizational culture erodes, productivity is held hostage, and attrition skyrockets.

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.

Telling someone to address a behavior is as helpful as a medical diagnosis without a recovery plan. How might a manager respond to this frustrated employee? Let's call her Marjorie.

Marjorie has been informed that her request for support from Help Desk has been received but, due to complications with the new system software installation, there will be a two day delay in technical support. She blurts out the following:

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

Request clarification
In a calm and firm manner, ask Majorie to please share the words she said about the Help Desk and explain what was meant by these words. In asking her to repeat these words, you invite ownership and explore meaning while avoiding accusing, lecturing or judging.

Acknowledge the person's concerns
During conflict, our human tendency is to experience frustration, anger, even fear. Upon hearing our unmet need acknowledged, we feel heard and understood, thereby diffusing our anger. Being recognized and heard is a human need and, while it's not a solution, it makes it easier to see another person's or department's needs. Acknowledging a concern doesn't mean you approve of someone's behavior, it simply means you understand what motivated a behavior.

Communicate positive wants/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's assuring to know someone cares about you, especially when you've acted impulsively and spoken inappropriately. One way to communicate caring is to verbalize that you'd like Marjorie to get technical support in a reasonable time in order to complete her work. In addition, share your positive desire for Help Desk 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 for everyone in the department where concerns are addressed respectfully.

Bring awareness of the impact of words and actions
Effective managers help others understand the impact of their words and actions. Communicate that when you hear the comment that "the Help Desk Department should be renamed the Helpless Department," it seems like a department has been attacked. Comments like these create a negative work environment and divide departments instead of unifying the organization. In addition, people feel attacked and disrespected. Share your concern that once negativity spreads, it's hard to stop.

Invite brainstorming to find a different way to respond
Having shared impact, ask Marjorie if there are avenues other than Help Desk where she can obtain support. In asking her to brainstorm, you help her move from attacking others to problem solving. This is what you encourage Marjorie to do the next time she is frustrated.

Request agreement that behavior will not occur moving forward and identify next steps
After discussing what happened and the impact, it's equally important to get an agreement of behavior in the future from Marjorie. Ask her to make a commitment that all concerns will be respectfully verbalized. If you expect an apology as follow-up action by Marjorie, clearly communicate this along with any consequences that will result from her behavior and whether documentation will occur.

Relational response training needed by all
While first-aid kits are available for minor physical injuries and 911 calls can be made 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.

About the Author
Lorie Reichel Howe is founder of Conversations in the Workplace. She leverages over 20 years of expertise in communication and relationship management. She equips managers and teams to have "safe conversations" �" transformative dialogue that uncovers hidden workplace issues. Whether issues are challenging team dynamics, mismanaged expectations or good old-fashioned bad behavior, "safe conversations" foster greater innovation, inclusion and collaboration within organizations.

Learn more about Lorie's impact at and don't miss her "Managing Up" webinar for WITI on December 18th.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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