Erica Pinsky



Two to Tango


My teenage daughter was thrilled when she recently started her new job.  She liked the work and the people, at least everyone she met until her shift last week.  She made a couple of mistakes, she told me, and was “called on them”  by two supervisors.


Her immediate reaction was to feel anxiety, shame, and worry.  Her confidence was momentarily shaken she said. She started to feel badly about herself.  She started wondering if she really liked her job as much as she had originally thought.


As her shift progressed, however, those feelings passed.  She decided to just let it go and use it as a learning experience.  When I asked what she might do differently she said she would ask more questions and ensure she was clear on all her job duties.


If this had happened with a friend, she told me, she would have made a choice to speak to the person and let them know how their actions impacted her.  Problem here, she said, was that these people had power “over” her.  That power dynamic caused her to feel reluctant to speak up as she did not want to do anything that might negatively impact her at work.


As you can imagine this is something I routinely hear in my work  with my clients.


“You know it wasn’t the fact that they were pointing out that I made a mistake that upset me” she continued.  “I figured I might make a few, given that I am a new employee, doing things for the first time.     It was the way they spoke to me that bothered me.”


In one instance the supervisor had asked her “Why didn’t you…”


It was the use of the word “why” that my daughter found problematic.


Not surprising.

‘Why’ questions tend to put us on the defensive.

‘Why’ infers blame.  ‘Why’ sounds accusatory.


In the second instance another supervisor had said  “You should have …. Don’t you know…” The result was my daughter to felt shamed, embarrassed and confused.

Again, not surprising.

‘You should’ and ‘don’t you know” can infer blame,

be accusatory or seem judgemental.


This also tends to put us on the defensive.


The impact of this language was exacerbated due to the lack of relationship my daughter has with these individuals.  This was the first time she had met either of them.  It also bothered her that she was not given an opportunity for any dialogue or to explain her rationale for doing what she had done.


Most of us know that language is only one small piece of the communication puzzle.  Those in the know tell us that the actual words we use only account for 7% of the message.  Tone accounts for 38% and body language for 55%.


While I know those are the stats, my experience is that the actual words we use impact the outcomes of our communications to a much greater degree than 7%.  Choosing respectful language is critically important in ensuring that our intention in communication is realized.  Respectful language supports the development of trusting, productive relationships.  The bonus is that when we start to get curious about our language, curiosity about tone and body language inevitably follow.


Let’s consider what might ignite our curiosity about how we communicate.


One possibility is that we don’t get the outcome we want.  My experience is we often neglect curiosity in favour of blame: it’s not me it’s you, which absolves us of responsibility, a theme we explored in the January post.


What can work really well is getting respectful feedback about our communication style.  The problem is that very few of us are ever fortunate enough to receive any.


My daughter made a choice that is quite typical: what I like to refer to as “put up and shut up.”  My experience, supported by the research, is that this is the choice most of us make when we are on the receiving end of comments and/or behaviours that bother us at work, particularly when the individual making those comments is in a position of power.


If that is a strategic choice, as opposed to a reactive one; if we are able to, as my daughter did, let it go and not allow it to upset or bother us, it can be a reasonable and respectful choice.


Problem is that all too often however, that choice no longer serves us if the disrespectful behaviour continues and we have an ongoing working relationship with the individual that is engaging in it.  It becomes harder to let it go, not to let it bother us, not to allow it to affect our confidence, our self-esteem, and/or our feelings about our work environment.


When I asked my daughter to tell me more about what bothered her about the way those individuals spoke to her, she proceeded to give me some examples of how they could have delivered the message in a way that would have worked for her: what I would frame as communicating respectfully.


I have to say it was a very affirming parental moment for me.  I realized that I have managed to “walk my talk” with my daughter, something any of you who are parents know can be extremely challenging at times.  I strive to hold myself accountable to apply the respectful communication skills I routinely practice with my clients in my relationship with my daughter.  While I am certain I have not always been successful, it appears that I am managing to align my behaviour with my values most of the time.  For me that is a real cause for celebration.


I suggested to my daughter that if those kinds of interactions continued to occur with those individuals, she could choose to speak up, give them some respectful feedback and share the examples of what might work for her: to step into her power and ‘lead up.’


One of the reasons individuals who engage in problematic behaviour often fail to shift their behaviour is because they don’t know how to make the shift.  Awareness is the first step.  The journey can’t continue, however, without some idea about what to do instead of…, what language to choose rather than….


When it comes to ‘leading up’ it’s not about how much power you have, it’s about how you use the power you have.  We may not be able to control what happens to us, we might not be able to “control” how someone we work for or with talks to us, however, we can always choose how we respond.  It is important to appreciate that victimization is a choice.  As Eleanor Roosevelt said “ No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”


My experience, supported by the research, is that one of the most effective ways to stop disrespectful behaviour and unresolved conflict is to empower and equip individuals to speak up, and lead up respectfully.  Ideally, we want  to shift “giving someone feedback” about their communication style from being something we avoid to a workplace norm that we all embrace.


My daughter was clear on how she would have preferred those supervisors speak to her about her errors.


That is the first step in the process: getting clear on what respectful feedback looks like for you.


The second step is to think about how you might frame your comments, particularly in a situation where you are interested in ‘leading up’; giving feedback to someone that is in a position of power.


If speaking up is not a norm in your workplace, this can be tricky.  One effective strategy is to shift from being reactive to being proactive.  Rather than wait until someone says something that bothers or upsets you, create an opportunity to talk about work related communication with your leader/colleague.



Think about how you can frame what you have to say from a “what’s in it for them” perspective, e.g. It’s really important to me that I am successful here (or that I do a good job).  It would be really helpful for me if I had a clear understanding of how you like to work, what your expectations are with respect to my work, and how you think I can best contribute to the team.  I would also appreciate an opportunity to talk about how you’ll let me know if something I am doing is not working for you, or if there is a problem or an issue with the work I am doing.”


In the course of the conversation, look for an opportunity to share what works for you, how you like to be spoken to, how you like feedback to be delivered.  Be specific, objective and descriptive.


In an ideal world, where all workplaces were aligned with the ethical value of respect, our leaders would be having these kinds of conversations with us routinely.  In the meantime, we might want to ask ourselves how we can 'lead up' and be the spark that ignites the respect conversation.


Remember - It may take two to tango, but it only takes one to change a relationship.


 available as a PODCAST

"This easy to read book paints a clear and vivid picture of what the many facets of respect looks like in a thriving organization.  Through numerous ‘respectful practices’ we are not just told, but shown how to move toward a culture where respect is a living core value and success and profitability are the outcomes.  It is the “roadmap” to respect and path to profit."

Mike Desjardins
One of Business in Vancouver’s Top 40 Under 40