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     The November 14, 2013 “Ask Amy” advice column (‎) featured the story of “Ethical and Unappreciated” who worked in a five-employee office where relationships have seriously deteriorated over the past year.  From the writer’s point of view, problems began when he or she “stood firm on a professional and ethical issue that exposed the business and myself to liability.”  The boss, the writer says, “is completely supportive of my actions,” but one co-worker “hurled heated words at me” and the others are clearly not happy.  “Ethical and Unappreciated” wants to know if Amy thinks that he or she should pass on the traditional Christmas gift exchange this year.

            Amy replies, “The ethical thing to do is to continue to rise above other people’s pettiness and rudeness and to remember that this holiday is supposed to be all about peace on Earth and good will toward all people.  Evidently, that’s not the holiday you intend to celebrate this year.”  Then Amy suggests some words the writer might use to bow out of the gift exchange.

            This same kind of group hostility happens when an offended family member gives the silent treatment to a guilty sibling, uncle, grandchild, or spouse; or when a committee, club, or group member avoids all contact with another member who’s said or done something “unforgivable.”  Many people’s communication lives are cluttered with situations where people refuse to talk with each other.

             Each of us obviously has the right to choose the people we talk with, and it’s often important to stand up for what you believe.  And there’s more to it than this.  Both your interpretation of a difficult situation and your options can change when you recognize that every relationship—friend, family, work, outside group—is fundamentally a commitment to conversation, an agreement that the people involved have good reasons to keep talking with one another.   A Board of Directors has one set of reasons, a bowling team has a different set, and a family a very different set.   But being in the relationship means being committed to talking with the others.

            Some relationships are relatively easy to enter, remain in, and exit.  When your server says, “Hi, I’m Sara and I’ll be taking care of you this evening.  Would you like to order a drink or an appetizer?” she’s initiating a low-level relationship that’s not expected to last.  But if somebody else delivers the food and Sara never stops by your table to ask how things are, she’s not holding up her end of even this minimal commitment to conversation.  And the tip you leave is likely to show it.

            Effective communicators realize that they don’t individually control many of the relationships they’re in.  “Ethical and Unappreciated” could quit her job, but you have to wonder whether that cure would be worse than the disease, especially since the boss agrees and E&A appears to like the work.  It’s even harder to exit a family group.  Even divorced spouses remain in a kind of relationship, especially if they have children.  Sometimes it’s even unrealistic to leave a service club or nonprofit that you support because there are few convenient and effective other ways to meet the goals that led you to join the group.

             Amy seems to get this point when she suggests that, rather than continuing to stew in a self-righteous and victimized sulk, “Ethical and Unappreciated” might explore a more graceful, more mature, and also a more realistic course of action:  To say and do something next that could help to improve the situation.  In U&ME:  Communicating in Moments that Matter, I call this skill, "nexting." 

            The easiest way for E&A to do this would be to gracefully remain in the office gift exchange and look for opportunities to reinforce any positive responses that occur.  Or she might ask her boss to brainstorm a way for the two of them to improve the climate.  A third option could be to have coffee with each of her colleagues to create opportunities to talk more about the difficulties.  This option is most risky and most difficult, of course, and E&A would want to prepare for it—for example by reviewing the excellent book, Crucial Conversations:  Tools for Talking when the Stakes Are High. (‎)

            The main reason for E&A to make one or more of these moves is that she’s living in la-la land.  The position E&A expresses in the letter to Amy ignores at least four realities.  One is that all human communication is continuous, complex, and collaborative, which tells you that there’s more going on in this office than the letter-writer describes.  The difficulties probably did not really start with the event E&A describes, and you can be sure that E&A has also taken some actions or said some things that have made the situation worse (I talk about this continuous, complex, and co-laborative idea in Chapter 2 of U&ME)

    Another reality is that, especially if the boss is supportive, the other workers’ resentments are not likely to create any permanent change in policy or procedures.  So there’s no professional reason for E&A to be afraid of her colleagues’ responses. 

   A third reality is that everybody in the office still has to come to work every day, and the current situation is hurting the quality of life of each person in it.  Stress levels are higher than they need to be, work satisfaction is lower, people are coming to work pissed rather than eager.  Why not acknowledge these realities?

            “Ethical and Unappreciated’s” description of the situation makes it all about him or her.  And a fourth reality is, it’s not.  A relationship—like this five-employee office—is a commitment to conversation, and conversation inherently involves more than one person.  Unless E&A seriously plans to quit, he or she should try to do something positive next.  Maybe the Boss will join in.  Maybe not.  But isn’t life too short to stay stuck at work in a self-righteous funk?

            Being in a relationship means accepting the expectation that you’ll keep talking, even when things get difficult.  Some accusations aren’t easy to move beyond—let alone forget—and some name-calling cuts really deep.  It may take days or weeks after an outburst before you’re ready to do something positive next.  If it helps, remember that you’re the one taking the high road, and you get points for that.

            But don’t get the mistaken notion that you always can unilaterally and successfully stop talking when you’re in a relationship, and also consider carefully whether you should try to do that.  Especially if it’s a family relationship, a long-term one, or one where there’s been genuine mutual caring and support, recognize the underlying commitment-to-conversation that defines it.  And try to practice what I call the single most important skill for effective communication:  Nexting.

            Nexting is introduced in Chapter 3 of U&ME: Communicating in Moments that Matter and applied throughout the book.

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