Forget Stranger Danger: It’s the People You Know

Forget Stranger Danger. It’s the people you know.

Don’t talk to strangers. This has been a lesson passed down to children for generations as parents try to protect them from child abductors and other with ill intentions. Most strangers do not fit into this unfair category and could be valuable allies in a time of need. I can’t recall a time a stranger ever did me harm, but I have several instances of being hurt by people I know. Consider how you would react, feel, and act in the following scenarios:

1.   It is a beautiful summer afternoon. You and a co-worker are walking down the street when suddenly a stranger you see ahead starts yelling obscenities at you.

2.   You and the same co-worker are walking down the hallway at work and your boss sees you and starts yelling obscenities because you are late.

Do you have different thoughts and feelings? I certainly do. In both instances, I would ensure my physical safety first, but my immediate thoughts are very, very different.

With the stranger, I would keep walking, ignore them, and question if they were intoxicated or dealing with an undiagnosed or under-treated medical condition. With the boss, I would be shocked, angry, upset, worried, defensive, confused, scared and go back to my desk and ruminate about whether I was going to be written up, fired, or if I should quit. The difference is the relationship that exists with the boss that does not exist with the stranger. Even if you never liked your boss, they employ you, and you depend on the income. There is a relationship and that changes the dynamics.

Is it possible the boss could share his concerns in a more productive way? Absolutely.  In fact, there are a range of verbal and nonverbal messaging we can use to let people know how we feel about them and their actions while maintaining dignity and showing respect.

Okay. So, you were late getting back to work, and the boss is mad. How could this have gone differently? There are three types of confirming messages that will completely change the outcome of this boss-employee interaction.

1.   Recognition is the first step and the most fundamental to creating a safe space. It requires that we acknowledge another when they are present. True the boss did this – but very poorly. The art of creating safety in conversations is in how you make the first contact. There are many methods you can use and they include making eye contact, saying hello, waving, nodding, smiling, salutations and greetings, small talk. It always feels good when the person we acknowledge reciprocates the gestures. Recognition feels good! If you have ever had someone dart down another hallway, or turn around when you walk by, shift their gaze past you while you are approaching, you know how hurtful that can be. In the case of being late to work, the boss could have smiled, said hello, and requested a few moments of your time for a private conversation.

2.   Next, once we have made a connection, we can then progress to the second stage of creating a safe space: Acknowledgement. During this stage, the primary tool to use is that of listening. Hearing another person’s ideas, beliefs, solutions, issues, plans, contributions, etc. and responding with relevant questions or comments is critical at this stage. It is more than the boss “acknowledging” that you are late by yelling obscenities. It is learning about what happened and the context around the current situation so that the boss can provide constructive feedback. Let’s face it, the conversation will be different if you are late because you took advantage of the loose policy enforcement or because you stopped to call 911 for someone who was unwell. Do not confuse acknowledge with agreeing. Acknowledge simply means you have heard their story and you can understand or appreciate in some way what lead them to think, feel, or act in a certain way.

3.   An endorsement is considered the highest form of confirming messages. In this stage, you are agreeing with another’s thoughts, beliefs, and/or actions and this indicates a shared value system. The boss may agree that it is easy to lose track of time and may share that it has happened to them as well (the human factor is critical). The boss would also be justified to remind you of the attendance policy and employment expectations. The original scene with a boss yelling will likely contribute to decreased productivity, morale, and engagement.

We can disagree, and give bad news, while still maintaining and protecting the dignity and respect of others. The question is, will you treat the people you know with the same kindness you treat a stranger?

Take care of those near you, and those new to you, and the world will take care of you.


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