Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Speaking Up To A Coughing Coworker

We’re excited to announce that Emily Hoffman, a Senior Master Trainer as well as VitalSmarts’ VP of Development & Delivery, will become a regular contributor to the Crucial Skills Newsletter.

Dear Crucial Skills,

A friend of mine works in a small office. She has a new coworker who sits on the other side of her cube. They face each other and the cubes are very low. This new office mate is very nice and she would like to have a good relationship with her, however the young woman continuously coughs without covering her mouth. My friend sometimes feels the cough on her face and it has become extremely difficult to work next to her. Is there a good way to approach this situation?

Friend of the Coughed upon Coworker

Dear Friend,

Congratulations to your friend! She has already done two incredibly important things right. First, your friend recognizes the need to have a positive working relationship with her office mate. Second, she is addressing this quickly, while the coworker is still “new.” Allow me to explain why these two things are worthy of congratulations.

First, she has positive intent. So often it is our intent that gets in the way of holding effective crucial conversations. We quickly jump to conclusions about others (e.g. “What bad manners she has!” and “How rude and inconsiderate of her!”) We consciously or subconsciously bring this to our dialogue, often through our non-verbal actions. Then, after judging the person in our hearts, we are astonished when they become defensive. Of course they become defensive! They can sense our judgment. I’d become defensive too if I thought someone was out to judge and criticize me. So, your friend has taken this crucial first step; she has withheld judgment and has a positive intent.

Next, she is facing this issue while her office mate is still new. Why is this so important? Not only does it keep the problem from festering, which will almost inevitably erode any good intent she might have, it also creates more defensiveness in the other person. If you are the one coughing, it is easy to think, “Why didn’t she say something about this before? I am so embarrassed, I could die of shame!” Or, along different yet equally predictable lines, “Gee! What’s the big deal? It’s never bothered you before. Or has it? Have you been holding a grudge all this time?” Either way, your friend is significantly better off addressing this early, before emotions escalate.

Okay, so enough with the back-patting congratulations. What should your friend actually say? First, start with a positive statement of intent that builds directly on what we have just discussed. “I wanted to chat with you about something. It’s been so nice working with you these past few days/weeks and I am looking forward to continuing that. I just want to catch something early.”

Then, be specific without being accusatory. “I noticed you coughed several times without covering your mouth. Sometimes I have even felt the cough.”

Be careful here. The tendency will be to use absolute language like, “you always cough . . . ” or, “every time you cough . . . ” You don’t need to go to extremes to open up this dialogue, and doing that will likely provoke even more defensiveness.

Create additional safety by demonstrating you haven’t judged your coworker. “My guess is you aren’t even aware of this, which is why I thought I would bring it up.”

And then, just five sentences into the dialogue, stop. Wait. Listen. If needed, prompt with a question like, “Can we talk about this?” Remember, this is dialogue. The surest way to demonstrate good intent and your commitment to hearing the other person’s perspective is to close your mouth. Do that quickly and consistently and you will be amazed at what you will learn.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “That sounds great, but what do you do when the person coughing responds? Cries? Yells? Shuts down? Starts coughing on me right then?” The thing that typically causes the most anxiety when preparing for a crucial conversation is not thinking about what we will say, it is thinking about what the other person will say.

So, here is what you do: Imagine the absolute worst response you might get. Got it in your head? If you’re like me, you probably picked one of two extremes. Either the person coughing gets upset and responds defensively—“That is the rudest thing anyone has ever said to me! I can’t believe you would say that!” Or, perhaps worse, they get embarrassed but seem to be okay—“I am so sorry. Thanks for pointing that out. I will do better”—and then shuts down i.e. feels uncomfortable around you or is overly sensitive.

Once you have the worst possible response in your head, make a plan for dealing with it. If they become defensive and angry, clarify your good intent. “I didn’t mean to be rude or disrespectful. I sincerely enjoy working nearby you. I am sorry if that hasn’t been apparent. I want to be able to have an open, productive, collaborative relationship with you and talk about any concerns either of us might have.”

If they takes the second option and shut down, do the exact same thing as above—clarify your good intent. This time it may sound more like, “It seems like maybe I have made you uncomfortable or embarrassed. If I have, I am sorry. That was not my intent at all. I really value you working here and am looking forward to a great working relationship.”

Having someone point out bad behavior (such as fanning a coworker’s face with your lungs) is bound to create vulnerability. Be aware of that, and be willing to admit to your own vulnerability. After all, speaking up to someone about bad behavior creates a vulnerability all its own.

Good Luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

12 thoughts on “Speaking Up To A Coughing Coworker”

  1. CS

    Just wanted to say I spent years and pots of money going to specialists with a constant cough but cured it immediately with a food allergy test – found I was allergic to milk and wheat. Maybe the coworker could try that!!

    1. Sara Brennan

      Yes, I was going to mention allergies as well. Another way to approach the cougher!

  2. Rebecca

    How about just explaining how colds and the flu spread and the need for us all to protect ourselves and others from illness? Maybe she doesn’t understand that millions of droplets of saliva are sprayed into the atmosphere each time you cough.

  3. vera carbo

    Welcome Emily, This is so timely and perfect for a situation that I am in. Not about coughing but a boss who is accusatory; from the first word out of his mouth he puts his coworkers on the defensive.
    I will use your wise words. Thank you

  4. Nervous cougher

    I have a nervous cough that does not spew saliva but is nevertheless embarrassing. I get in front of a crowd; I cough. I do cough politically correctly, but still some folks like to judge without knowing that it’s just a bad case of nerves.

  5. Sara Brennan

    Besides spreading germs, you may want to consider coughing is a stress reaction for some individuals. S/he is in a new environment, new job, new everything. Without getting into life outside work, get to know he/r better. You don’t need to become best friends however helping her calm her nerves might help – a little empathy goes a long ways.

  6. Stop the fearmongers

    It’s never nice to be coughed on and simply poor hygiene by the cough(er), However, what wasn’t shared is the fact that for most colds, by the time the symptoms show, they are no longer contagious. Wash your hands often, keep your fingers out of your mouth, nose, and eyes, and you will be survive the cold season.

    1. Ash

      That’s actually not true. While some viruses are more prolific prior to symptoms, viruses are actively in the saliva throughout the infection, and generally shed in higher amounts near fever. The hygiene advice is solid, but the virulence info is a common myth.

  7. Stop the fearmongers

    The worse thing employers have done is to create sick time that accrues and which can be converted toward health insurance payments upon retirement. People don’t stay home when they are sick because they are saving for their retirement.

  8. Jan Katz

    Start with heart and master your story. Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic disease, not contagious, that causes a lot of coughing for extended period of time. One CF patient was had to wear a protective helmet all day while she was at work in an office or she would be fired. It was the kind of helmet that kids with cerebral palsy wear. It was humiliating and did not serve any purpose to protect the patient or the co-workers.

  9. Chan Meng

    Great advice Emily! I believe this is the first time I’ve seen you post on Crucial Skills, and as I was reading, I was thinking this was probably written by Joseph Grenny. What a pleasant surprise to see a different face at the bottom of the article! Great job VitalSmarts for training the next generation of trainers so well!

  10. James

    What a mamby pamby load of B.S. Why in the world do you feel an overwhelming desire to coddle such an inconsiderate, immature, and ignorant person such as this co-worker. The co-worker needs to be approached verbally first by a supervisor/boss, then if the behavior continues, disciplinary action is required.

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