Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Public Displays of Rudeness

Dear Crucial Skills,

What do you do when someone is rude or publicly cuts down another person in the middle of a meeting? When this happens, I have noticed that group dynamics change as people become quiet or even jump on the bandwagon and gang up on the speaker. I have given private feedback to individuals after such meetings, but the moment is damaged and the group’s ability to communicate and make good decisions is compromised. How do you handle group conflict in the moment and return to safety without publicly chastising someone?

Cut Down

Dear Cut Down,

If your team had ground rules, team members would know what is and is not acceptable, and they would be able to (courteously) tell each other when someone said something that was rude or cutting, and remind others that they need to act in accordance with their ground rules. The little amount of time it takes to clarify ground rules is a good way to prevent this behavior and presents a clear option for a quick fix.

If your team hasn’t already done so, you need to clarify expectations. In the best case, your team leader will help the team agree to three or four specific behaviors that will help them perform well as a team. Here are several examples:

  • “When we feel a teammate has let us or the team down, we will talk to them privately in a courteous manner.”
  • “We will give feedback to our teammates in ways that are honest, detailed, and courteous.”
  • “We will keep confidential what is spoken in confidence in our meetings.”

But how do you handle rudeness when you don’t have pre-established expectations? One of the tactics we teach people in Crucial Accountability is to speak up in these awkward moments by making a statement about what is expected vs. what is observed. In the very moment when the cutting remark is made, any member of the team could state, “I think meetings like this work better if we speak courteously to one another. That last comment was less than courteous. Can we avoid rude or sarcastic comments?” It often just takes one person to make a big difference.

Now I’m not so naïve as to believe that one such comment will always stop the attack. It often can and does, but not always. This is why we teach people to clarify the conversation they really need to have. We define three types of conversations—Content, Pattern, or Relationship. When the comment is a one-time comment, the conversation needs to focus on content. The statement I mentioned above is a content statement. You mentioned in your question that you’ve talked privately to individuals about this. When they make rude or cutting comments again, you have a pattern. When you talk to the person, privately, you need to talk about the pattern and the negative consequences of this pattern. And you need to get a commitment that they won’t do it again. If the person continues to be rude, it is not only affecting the team, it is affecting your working relationship. If the person is rude again, you need to talk about the relationship and how their continued bad behavior is affecting the way you can work together. You need to be clear about the actions you will take if they continue to make these comments. If you are a supervisor, that can mean progressive discipline. If you are a peer, it might mean that you will stop the progress of the meeting and ask that the team figure out how to fix this issue.

What do you do to get the feelings and the meeting back on track? I suggest you take a short break—five or ten minutes. There are many reasons for doing this. When someone says something rude or cutting, everyone in the room becomes emotional because they are experiencing little (or big) bursts of adrenaline. If you say something like, “Let’s calm down and continue this discussion in a few minutes,” you are appealing to the cognitive system, which works fast. But when emotions are high, people need a little time to cool down. Call a time out. When you reconvene, you will have the opportunity to invite the group to act in ways that will help the team conduct the meeting in a safe and effective way.

So in short, set ground rules if you can, speak up when you need to, call a time out to restore safety, and remind the group that some actions help while some hurt.

Best wishes,


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12 thoughts on “Public Displays of Rudeness”

  1. kelly t

    I agree with all your suggestions, but what happens if the person making the rude comments is someone outranking me? It’s pretty hard to correct your boss OR to lead a meeting in taking a break.

  2. Robert Nolan

    This question appears a lot in many of the blogs I watch and there never seems to be one great answer. If you’re an outside consultant / trainer you have certain rules to follow and I agree that a set of rules announced in the beginning of the class may discourage someone from being rude. Ih-house trainers may or may not have a set of guidelines but they should with managements blessings.
    I think back to my grade school days when an outburst of any kind Sister Marieta just sent me home. Then my father and I would have a “Crucial/ Critical/ Influencing Conversation” about what we would do the next time. Ah, the good old days!

  3. slccom

    Would providing an immediate supportive comment about/to the person who was just slammed by the person outranking you do the job? Something like,
    That was a stupid idea, Julia. (outranking person, but definitely not a superior!)
    It seems to me that the idea has some merit, (name of inferior superior). While it may be too expensive as Julia proposed it, couldn’t we (try some variation on it)? (You, the hero/heroine!)

    This might turn the conversation back to the subject without being a direct rebuke to the inferior superior.

    I await feedback on this idea…

  4. David Maxfield

    It’s tough when it’s a manager, especially when there aren’t any groundrules. I often handle these situations by “Tipping my Baton.”

    Think of an orchestra conductor who realizes the string section is a bit off time. Her choice is to ignore it, and give up on a great concert, or call a time-out, to practice in front of the audience. Of course, that’s not what conductors do. Instead, they signal the section (or an individual or entire orchestra) using just the tip of their baton. No one in the audience can even see it.

    The goal is to cue the offender back onto course. The way you do it is with just half of what Al suggested. Instead of describing what was expected versus what was observed, you only describe what you are expecting. You signal what you want, but you don’t single out the offender.

    For example, let’s say that the big boss has just described someone’s idea as “idiotic.” You might say, “Right now I think we want to generate as many ideas as we can. Can we hold off evaluating them until we have a whole bunch on the table?”

    The goal is to get the boss back on track without calling attention to his/her bad behavior. Of course, signalling doesn’t always work. Then you are faced with a bigger challenge. But try tipping the baton first. I find it works more often than not.

    I’m cautious about siccom’s idea of supporting the person who has been attacked. If I’m the boss, I might think I haven’t made my point clear–and try making it even clearer (and louder).

  5. murali

    This is an intersting topic, and often happens when a team has strong and emotive persons , the insult is much more when there is deeper striping down of the past by the bullying person on his team mate or the reportee. Often it is difficult to have a culture of remembering the ground rules and act according to that.

    Atleast the team shall have one strong emotionally balanced guy who can intervene and make amends …..

  6. David Maxfield

    I want to think more about what siccom has suggested. I think I commented too quickly and critically without thinking enough first.

    A few concepts: we want to find Mutual Purpose and show Mutual Respect; we suggest looking for What’s Right, instead of What’s Wrong in a comment; and we recommend looking at the Purpose behind the Strategy. What if we used a combination of these approaches to find the common ground between the meeting member’s idea and the boss’s criticism?

    Suppose the meeting member, Jane, suggested something like, “Why don’t we get Justin Bieber to endorse our campaign?” And the boss said, “Justin Bieber??? Are you crazy? That guy would charge us $100K for each appearance!”

    You might look for What’s Right–the Purpose behind the Strategy. Find a way to endorse and respect Jane’s idea and the boss’s comment–take them to their common ground: “I like where Jane is going–even if we can’t afford Justin Bieber. We could find a way to get opinion leaders in that demographic to support our cause.”

    How would that work for people? I’m looking for a low-risk way to bring the group back together and back on course.


  7. Patricia Gibson

    I felt disappointed reading your suggested response as my gut reaction if this were said to me (“I think meetings like this work better if we speak courteously to one another. That last comment was less than courteous. Can we avoid rude or sarcastic comments?” It often just takes one person to make a big difference”) would be to feel hurt because I would tend to interpret the comment as patronizing.
    I admit it is an uncomfortable situation. I recall one time being the ‘rude’ person (in fact, I was emotionally upset about something else). A skilled member of the group said: “I feel uncomfortable with what is being said right now”. I immediately ‘got it’ and later thanked her. I realized the power in coming from her “I” position coupled with an avoidance of any lecture or suggestions. I knew I was out of line…I was simply triggered emotionally. When emotionally upset, I rarely find a mini lecture helpful as it is appealing to the rational part of my brain which I am clearly not using!
    Keep up the great work.

  8. Dane Keehn

    All useful comments for me and great suggestions for how to handle rudeness in meetings. I find myself wondering exactly what this “rude” comment was, though. And in what context was it made? It might do a group well to not only establish groundrules and expectations, but to go a little deeper into what “rudeness” or “courtious” means to the individuals in the group. Those words, and the behaviors associated with them, are very culturally bound and have quite different meanings for different people. For example, as a native New Yorker working in Seattle, I have learned that for some Seattle folks, simply expressing your disagreements, or doing a reality check, openly in a meeting could be considered rude.

    We have found working with groups to clarify these issues around “rudeness” “courtesy” and “civility” clears the air and helps get the group re-committed to working with each other in a way that works. for them.

  9. Roy Hinton

    Appreciate the article and helpful comments. Like most of us I attend frequent meetings and also teach in many executive education programs. As noted by Cut Down, the rude comment by one participant in my EMBA class immediately shifted the mood of the group. I declared a break and asked the individual in private if he observed this shift (he had not) and then pointed out to him what I observed. I suggested it would be valuable to him and the class to bring this up in when we reconvened – not to make him wrong, but to point out that there are no innocent conversations. When the class convened, I simple asked what others noticed when the comment was made. How had it shifted our learning environment? This became very constructive and added some value to the class which we were able to acknowledge.

  10. Daniel L. Kopp, MD

    I have to challenge this approach with physicians based upon my experience in employing some of these techniques.

    I believe the approaches outlined are spot-on for well-defined and structurally aligned teams. Unfortunately, for the most part, our physician colleagues haven’t yet acknowledged a place on the healthcare team. With the exception of hospital-employed physicians that may be more likely to acknowledge such a place, the majority of physicians still see themselves as independent contractors without formal connection. Thus, they’re more likely to bristle when
    challenged and likely will escalate whatever tensions might be developing. I’ve personally
    heard phrases such as “Who do you think YOU are to judge my comments as rude?
    What IS rude is a system of people that don’t allow me to work efficiently!”

    In my experience, maintenance of the “higher ground” is a better approach. “Deflecting” tension with an inquiry or statement that presumes the rudeness was either inadvertent or not intended, followed by a sincere pursuit of partnering with the individual is more likely
    to achieve success than “confrontation” in the model of crucial conversations
    within and among teams. We have to begin to accept that disruptive behavior is a symptom of an individual’s suffering.

    If and when we achieve the physicians’ acknowledgement of team, Mr. Switzler’s
    model should work as well as it does in other settings. Until that time,
    however, I would favor the alternative approach referenced above.

    Daniel L. Kopp, MD
    Recent CMO at Faxton St. Luke’s Healthcare in Utica, New York

  11. James Strock

    Thanks for sharing these useful thoughts. Rudeness is always–always–a self-serving activity. Thus it’s incompatible with leadership per se. That’s not to be confused with legitimate, necessary, context-specific toughness. Some may experience the latter as “rudeness,” but it’s not…..and tough feedback not be presented rudely, objectively speaking….

  12. John

    What do you all say about calling people out on ‘eye-rolls’ or sighs during a meeting after somebody saying something or when one turns his/her head and looks at another when a comment is made. Some gestures like that are the worst and unacceptable. They need to be tackled.

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