What Does a “Constructive” Response Actually Mean?

For several years I’ve been doing my own informal qualitative research: I usually start training sessions by describing a workplace incivility scenario, the likes of which most everyone in the room would have encountered. I then say, “Raise your hand if you know how you would constructively deal with this situation.” On average, less than 5 per cent of folks raise their hand.

It’s the word constructively that causes them to pause.

Any one of us can recall examples where our response was, well, less than productive. Sometimes things got worse. We may have been left with scars, perhaps reluctant, anxious or fearful to deal with things next time around.

So what does it actually mean to respond constructively when you experience incivility (or, for that matter, any unwelcome behaviour)? Here are key ingredients that go into the mix:

  1. Set a “no scorched earth” goal. Your objective should be to build the relationship rather than damage it. Shape your response accordingly.
  2. Think “addressing,” not “confronting.” The way that we think about a situation has a profound effect on how we approach it. When you think that you need to confront someone, your mind immediately categorizes the situation as adversarial and your whole being goes on battle alert. Rather than telling yourself that you need to confront the person, I recommend thinking in neutral terms such as addressingdiscussing, dialoguingexploring or dealing with.
  3. Express your reaction in a measured way. Tone it down. Conveying your emotions in all their colourful potency will overwhelm the other person and reduce rational thinking. The same is true if you resort to sarcasm.
  4. Choose your words prudently. Words can inadvertently turn a situation from constructive to destructive in a big hurry. The interaction will become charged and you won’t even know why. One word to avoid is but (“I know you may have intended well, BUT…”) as it triggers defensiveness.
  5. Control your body language. You can use the best-selected words, however non-verbal communication that is laden with strong feelings (anger, resentment, hurt, retaliation) will trump all else.
  6. Only the facts, please. Sharing the labels or conclusions you’ve attached to the other person’s motives or personality (“You have zero respect for anyone else’s opinion”) will escalate the situation. Stick to the facts: What would a video camera capture, without the help of a narrator? What would a fly on the wall have seen or heard when the problem occurred?

The new year has just begun. What do you plan to do differently this year to avoid destructive confrontations and benefit from constructive explorations?


On a different note: I am thrilled to share the following discount opportunity: On February 16 I will be presenting a webinar on workplace incivility for the Conference Board of Canada (Trust Your Inner Canary: Taming Workplace Incivility.) The Conference Board has graciously extended a 50% discount off the $199 webinar fee to people in my network. If you or a colleague are interested in attending, just let me know and we will provide you with the details ASAP.

As always, contact me anytime to talk about anything, including our workplace civility training workshops or how to help change an abrasive leader.

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