Recently, BizPsych was asked to host a webinar on “The Respectful Workplace” for a client company.  This title of this training, “The Respectful Workplace,” has often been a useful and polite cover for harassment training. In fact, I often recommend using this title, as it is the fundamental concept of respect that is at the heart of understanding harassment and sexual harassment. In this case however, the organization wanted us to explore respect in the workplace in terms of values, attitudes, and behaviors that promote and maintain respect. In planning for the webinar it occurred to us that communication is a key concept in the experience of either respect or disrespect in the workplace. So, we decided to focus on tips and insights that may be useful in promoting respectful communication in the workplace.

Difficult, Crucial, and Fierce Conversations
There are many books, theories and approaches that tackle the subject of challenging communication in the workplace (and outside of the workplace). The value of effective conversation in the workplace has been researched and demonstrated. The literature on the subject has further promoted implementing these communication modalities. We chose to focus on the concept of essential and effective conversations, as a method in sharing practical tools to enhance respect in the workplace. In this blog, I will focus on one of the seven principles from Susan Scott’s work, “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and Life One Conversation at a Time.” This was also shared during the webinar.

“Principal 6: Take Responsibility for Your Emotional Wake”
This concept is key to the consideration of respect in the workplace. “Emotional Wake” has to do with how we come across to others – “what you remember after I’m gone” (Scott, pg. 187). The author uses the image of a boat speeding through a slow zone and the effect that the boat’s wake leaves on the calm waters. This wake symbolizes the impression that we leave after a conversation or interaction with another. Your wake is what people remember about you and how they describe you to others. This can be a tricky concept, as others perceive you through their own filters. Your wake is a combination of what and how you say and do, and how others perceive this. You may not be remembered in the way you intend; hence, the need to pay even greater attention to your wake, i.e. your impact and not merely your intent. Ms. Scott quotes a CEO, frustrated with workplace communication (pg. 191):

“What I get to say is not what I want to say,

       Is not what they listen to,

            is not what they hear,

                is not what they understand,

                     is not what they remember when I’m gone.

                           What do I want them to remember when I’m gone?

                                    I need to say that, and only that…clearly!”

What  You Don’t Say
Your wake is also significantly determined by what you don’t say. This has to do with expressing appreciation, acknowledgement, and listening. I find that as I age, more and more people are only focused on their own needs and interests. They just don’t listen. They may be fascinating people, but part of their wake to me is that my needs and interests are not important to them. Is that how we want to be remembered? Appreciation is “value-creating.” Expressing appreciation is helpful when creating desired emotional wake.

Self Respect
We may encounter situations in the workplace in which people have created such negative wakes with one another that they begin to give up on their relationships altogether and are deadlocked in conflict. All they see is the negative wake of the other, and this perception may continue to amplify over time. In these situations, it is clearly essential to “check out” our perceptions of others. It often happens that each person has built up and reinforced erroneous, negative assumptions about the other. It is just as important in these situations to have “fierce conversations” with ourselves. Our own lives must be working and positive in order for us to leave a positive wake; the wake we choose and want. These can be the most challenging times to consider our own emotional wake. What we frequently see is individuals making the choice to simply protect themselves by pulling back and withdrawing from the relationship. While this may seem to be a better choice than engaging in conflict, the result will further drive the “negative wake.” In this case, people are neglecting the need for appreciation and acknowledgement of the other. The most respectful choice may be to look inward and recognize the need for internal change, rather than attempt to control the situation through inauthentic defenses.

Eliminate “The Load”
“The Load” is the unspoken tone underneath the words we use, or sometimes the choice of words we use. These are implied meanings, either unintended or at times intended. This could be a “sugary sweet” cover up for a deflection or dig. It could also be an aggressive and threatening tone. We don’t have total control over others’ perceptions of us; however, we do have influence and can increase this influence by paying attention to what our intentions are, being mindful of our word choices and non-verbal’s, and eliminating the “loads”  from our conversations. Practicing mindfulness may be the best way to achieve this. Mindfulness is observing ourselves in a way that allows us to see our behavior as objectively as possible and without judgment. This is a mirror to the self. The more we can develop this capacity, the more we can experience our emotional wake as others might experience it.

Respect in the workplace is a value to all of us. It is essential to productivity, teamwork, and job satisfaction. Respect must also be an expectation of the organization. We see the fallout when respect has broken down in the workplace. There are many elements to creating and maintaining a respectful workplace. Learning and practicing effective and respectful conversations is one of the best tools we can offer. This is especially true in difficult and challenging situations. It is not the challenging situation itself that is the problem. Disagreement and conflict are normal in any healthy workplace. How we handle these situations is the key to maintaining respect. Paying attention to our emotional wake is our first and primary responsibility in what, and how, we contribute to this end.

“There are people who take the heart out of you and there are people who put it back.”
-Elizabeth David, from Fierce Conversations

Patrick Hiester MA, LPC
Vice President of BizPsych

Scott, Susan. (2002) Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and Life One Conversation at a Time. LOCATION: Berkley.