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Once & For All: Stopping Sexual Harassment at Work

It’s Okay to Not Know What to Do

You’ve just heard someone say something insensitive. Perhaps it was about an ethnic group, or members of a particular religion, or maybe men versus women.

As far as you can tell, no one else seems to be bothered by what was said, but you’re feeling uncomfortable. Does it really matter?  And if so, is there anything you can do about it?

Difficult moments like these are hard to deal with. We tend not to know what to do.  We don’t want to start a fight; these are people we work with every day.  And we don’t want to be seen as too sensitive, uptight, or politically correct. So what can you do?

First:  take a moment to recognize the complexity of your emotional experience.

You’re feeling upset and maybe even angry about what was said.  You might feel embarrassed at hearing someone speak such intolerance.  If what was said was funny – someone was telling a joke – you might have laughed, so perhaps you’re also feeling guilty.

On top of that array of discordant emotions, you might also feel as if you want to take some sort of action to make things right … and that just adds anxiety to the mix. It’s complicated.  It’s uncomfortable.  You have no idea what to do next.  And that’s okay.

When we can tolerate our own difficult feelings, we open the door to greater understanding and more responsive action.  If, instead, we turn away from how we feel, we’re likely to turn away from the whole situation…and perhaps find ourselves haunted by it for the rest of the day and even longer.

Second:  let go of any urgency you feel to take action right now.

Uncomfortable moments seem to demand action. That’s because we want to stop feeling uncomfortable, and it seems like immediate action will help shift how we feel. But that immediate action will probably be fueled by the cacophony of emotions you’re experiencing – and as we all know, an emotional reaction is likely to create even more tension and discord.

Instead, stop.  Pause and breathe for a moment.  You don’t have to take action immediately.  You do have time to reflect.

Third:  now you’re ready to consider what you’d like to see happen.

What would help resolve the situation?  How could greater awareness and understanding be brought to play?  In some cases, you might feel a need to hear an apology from the person involved.  In other cases, it could be as simple as letting them know they could have chosen better words to make their point.

Fourth:  no matter how wrong you feel the person was, and no matter how angry or upset you may still feel, approach the issue with respect.

This just makes sense from all perspectives – including the reality that if you’re calm and non-confrontational, the other person is far more likely to be able to hear what you’re saying.  On the other hand, if you go in filled with righteous indignation, they’ll inevitably be defensive and you won’t make much of an impression.

So instead of saying, “How could you!,” try asking, “Did I understand what you said correctly?” Instead of demanding an apology, open the conversation by saying, “I’d like to understand what just happened.”

By asking for clarification, you open the door to mutual understanding – instead of closing the door with accusations.

These situations are never easy.  Learning these steps will help you cope with the feelings of anger, embarrassment, guilt, and anxiety that often come up.  Then instead of reacting and escalating the problem, you can respond in ways that bring about a resolution. And that fosters more understanding for everyone involved.

Recommended Training Resource: Gateways to Inclusion: Turning Tense Moments into Productive Conversations uses real-world stories to illustrate how things go wrong in the workplace and demonstrate key behaviors we can use to take thoughtful action and set things right.  The video features well-known author and diversity expert Dr. Sondra Thiederman, whose compassionate explanations help us understand how these “gateway moments” have the potential to bring about greater understanding, improved communication, and closer relationships.

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