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Reaching Out to Break Down Barriers and Build Bridges

Picture this scenario:

Michael has expected that re-organizing his department's personnel, duties, and office space would cause some consternation and conflict. After all, he reasoned, there are some complainers in every group. But believing that the benefits would outweigh the costs, he announced his plans at the weekly meeting. He was taken by surprise, however, at the range and degree of emotions his staff expressed: frustration, tears, hurt, disappointment, anger, and stony silence. Unprepared for such strong emotional upheaval, Michael paused momentarily, then proceeded as if everyone was in agreement with his plans. He ended by declaring that the re-organization would become effective the next day.

By reaching out to the other person, one often can repair emotional damage caused by a conflict. This may involve calming the other person down, soothing hurt feelings, or making amends. The goal of this strategy is to reduce the emotional tension in the situation and allow resumption of the conflict resolution process. While one may feel that repairing emotions is time-consuming, unnecessary, or inappropriately personal in the workplace, consider the consequences of not doing so: protracted conflict; a reputation as an insensitive bully; unhappy distressed workers performing poorly; sabotage; and all too commonly today, workplace violence. Reaching out early and often may prevent serious problems from developing.

Coping with emotional distress (yours as well as others) admittedly can be difficult and stress inducing. You may be faced with tears, yelling, and looks of hatred all in the space of a few seconds. The emotions may be directed at superiors, subordinates, the organization, the situation, the world or — most difficult — you. It could be as overwhelming for you as it is for the person you're trying to help. But if you can remain calm, attentive and alert, you will be able to discern what the other person needs: sympathy, comfort, commiseration, or just someone to listen. Because everyone differs in his/her level of sensitivity and comfort with physical contact, it is not advisable to pat, hug, or otherwise touch a distressed co-worker. Listening will be the first, best, and sometimes only thing you can do.

Think of the whole process of reaching out to repair emotional damage in three stages —
before you reach out, while you are reaching out the other person, and after you have reached out.

Before you reach out to a person to repair emotional damage —

Begin with Reflection Questions.

  • In past conflicts, when would taking time to reach out have been beneficial?
  • What have been the personal and professional consequences of not reaching out?
  • What kinds of reaching out am I most comfortable with? Least comfortable?
  • How do I want to be viewed when the conflict is over?

Anticipate what could happen.

  • What emotions might arise and why?
  • How would I handle different emotional scenarios?
  • Would the presence of a third party be helpful?
  • Can the meeting time be arranged to occur near the end of the day or week so as to allow a natural cooling-off period?

Break down barriers and build bridges.

  • Pay attention to others. Be thoughtful, empathetic, and supportive.
  • If aware of personal difficulties someone is having, express your concern with a card, visit, or phone call.
  • Take (or make) the opportunity to talk informally with others, take them to lunch, acknowledge their birthdays, etc.

While in the midst of the reaching out to another person to repair emotional damage —

Try to identify the person's emotional state so that you can respond most effectively.

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Remorse

Cues as to one's emotional state will be signaled by:

  • Facial expressions
  • Difficulty staying in control
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Tone of voice
  • Body posture

Directly acknowledge others' emotions and their emotional needs.

  • Never say one is wrong to feel the way s/he is feeling
  • Encourage the other person to express his/her feelings
  • Express your sincere desire to understand
  • Be accepting and respectful

Employ dynamic listening. Some examples:

  • Take the other person's perspective
  • Be sure you understand the other's position and feelings; ask questions
  • Empathize; let the other person know when you understand and when you don't

Provide time for the other person to compose him/herself.

  • Request a time out
  • Change the subject
  • Postpone the discussion until another time

If you are the cause of another's emotional distress:

  • Admit your responsibility
  • Sincerely apologize
  • If appropriate, ask what you can do to make amends
  • Praise or otherwise "give strokes" to improve the emotional climate

After you have reached out to a person to repair emotional damage —

Assess yourself.

  • What did I do well?
  • What areas still need improvement?
  • Did I correctly anticipate which emotions would develop?
  • How will others view my actions and me?
  • If the conflict remains, is it because I have not addressed others' emotional needs?

Seek feedback from trusted others.

  • Was I sensitive to the other person's needs?
  • Did I accurately read the other's verbal and nonverbal cues to his/her emotional state?
  • Was I effective in my attempts to reach out?

Follow up with the person with whom you were in conflict.

  • Check on the emotional status of the other person; be supportive, but not intrusive
  • Apologize if you did not do so earlier (it's never too late)
  • If the other person is still distressed, it might be appropriate to suggest s/he talk to a third party, such as human resources professional or a counselor

If you are concerned that the other person is so distraught as to be dangerous to him/herself or others:

  • Don't threaten, criticize, or intimidate
  • Establish trust, but don't make any commitments you can't keep
  • Attempt to resolve the most critical issues first
  • Express your concerns to the appropriate person or department in your organization
  • Review the organization's safety and security plans for protecting its employees, or help develop such plans if they do not exist

Don't forget that "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted." ~ Aesop

These materials are used by permission of the Leadership Development Institute of Eckerd College and are copyrighted by Eckerd College in 2003.

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