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
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.