Rich Gallagher on the Incivility Epidemic

The following is a guest post by Rich Gallagher, author of How to Tell Anyone Anything and What to Say to a Porcupine.

Congressman Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” during a Presidential speech to Congress. Tennis star Serena Williams unleashing a string of F-bombs when a call went against her. Rapper Kanye West coming onstage and grabbing the microphone from first-time MTV award winner Taylor Swift. And cable talk hosts calling people names and stirring the pot on a daily basis.

What do these people all have in common? They are actually ruining your career.

Think about it. When you and your co-workers gather around the water cooler, do you find yourselves seeing everyone’s side or putting down your bosses, customers, or other departments? When you disagree with someone, is it a rational or an emotional discussion? Perhaps most important, are you getting what you want at work, especially when other people are involved?

We live today in an epidemic of incivility. It has social roots that got kicked into high gear when the media discovered the link between loud voices and high ratings, and a tough economy helped it infect many of our workplaces. The end result is a world where calling on people has been replaced by calling them out. It is career poison, but like cigarettes, many of us are hooked.

But here is the good news. You actually have more control over toxic bosses, annoying co-workers, and difficult customers than you think. And getting this power doesn’t involve your attitude, but rather your linguistics. Here are three positive ways to talk to anyone at work about anything, and do it civilly:

1) Start in a safe place. Here is your new mantra: you can never successfully criticize anyone, ever. When you start the conversation in a way that is on-topic, but doesn’t put anyone on the defensive, you end up in productive dialogue.

Suppose one of your co-workers is a backstabber who doesn’t like the fact that you got promoted. Here, your first statement might be, “Larry, do you feel you get enough credit for your work around here?” Or take a hostile, controlling boss: try asking her, “What kinds of performance expectations do you have?” Your goal here is to learn from them, so they are talking with you instead of fighting you. Done well, you will probably get an earful, which leads you to the second step:

2) Acknowledge everything. The reason most people argue with you is because they are trying to convince you to see their view of the world – and when you make it clear that you do understand them, which is not the same thing as agreeing with them, they have nothing to argue with you about. Use statements like “I can tell this is really important to you” or “No one likes to see people slack off” to share that you are hearing and processing the other person.

3) Just the facts. Now we get to the fun part – bringing up the issue you want addressed. Don’t hold back: you can be extraordinarily frank with people as long as you do a good job of acknowledging them and then stick to the facts.

Let’s use a sports analogy. What do you say when your favorite team loses? Probably that they “choked” or “stunk.” But these terms are not only scary, they are meaningless – there is no such thing as an anti-choking drill or a non-stink procedure. What really happened is that they dropped a critical pop fly or faced a stronger pitcher, and those are the things you can actually do something about.

Moving from sports to your negaholic boss, consider saying things like, “I want to give you everything you’ve talked about. And I find that I don’t work well when I am criticized. Where can we go from here?” Boil things down into facts and you are much more likely to have a painless discussion, from start to finish.

I didn’t just make these techniques up. They all spring from recent principles of psychotherapy (I am, in fact, a practicing therapist), and all of them are a powerful antidote to an epidemic of incivility. They may not make you a hit on cable TV, but they will help you get a lot more of what you want at work. More important, they will give you interpersonal and leadership skills that stick with you for the rest of your life.

Rich Gallagher is the author of How to Tell Anyone Anything and What to Say to a Porcupine. Dubbed “one of the founding fathers of modern customer support” by one of its leading professional societies, Rich is former customer service executive, public speaker, and practicing therapist who has taught over 10,000 people what to say in their most difficult workplace situations. He heads the Point of Contact Group in Ithaca, NY and is a veteran of numerous media appearances.


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