Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Strong Language at Work

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a fairly new team member working for me who is in an executive position, several years my junior, and cannot have a conversation or talk to a group without using multiple curse words. He is a really nice guy and seemingly oblivious to his speech patterns.

His cursing is offensive to me and embarrassing to some others who hear him. I truly want the best for this guy and feel that his corporate image is affected by this habit.

Could you please assist in structuring a crucial conversation with him that would alert him to his error and, at the same time, preserve the good working relationship we share?

Offended but not wanting to be offensive

Dear Offended,

This problem, while commonly experienced, often goes unattended. Here’s why: Even though most people aren’t exactly wild about others’ coarse language, they figure that it’s better to put up with the words than it is to confront and possibly offend the other person. And, if you’re the only one who addresses the problem, you may come off as holier-than-thou. Worse still, perhaps you have no right to dictate how others speak in the first place.

Actually, you do have every right to express your view on the matter. Your bosses, the HR manuals, and even parts of the law support your right to speak out against obscenities. When someone walks into the HR director’s office and says “The person I share a cubical with drops the F-bomb four times a minute,” the HR director isn’t going to ask the person to ignore the issue. Cursing in almost any form is no longer considered acceptable at work. And since we’re blessed with a language that sports hundreds of thousands of words, asking coworkers to drop a handful of offensive expressions isn’t exactly asking too much.

Now, kudos to you for wanting to deal with the problem yourself. Turning the crucial confrontation over to the boss or HR, while totally acceptable, might be bit over the top. You should be able to handle it quite easily. This is a problem where the person is likely to be unaware that his choice of words is offending you, and merely mentioning the issue will probably be enough to bring it to a halt. You could chat about how his unfortunate choice of words is hurting his reputation or possibly even harming his career, but once again, it’s probably overkill.

To keep the conversation in proportion, ask if it would be okay to discuss a small issue that is bothering you. Start with a statement of mutual purpose. You’d like to maintain a working relationship that works for both of you. Follow this with contrasting by explaining that the issue that has you concerned isn’t a big deal, but you’d like to deal with it so it doesn’t continue. Then simply explain that you find some of the words he uses offensive and you’d rather he stop using them in your presence. You don’t have to define or state the words—he’s very likely to know what words you’re talking about and that will be that. If he asks for clarity, then suggest that you’d rather not be exposed to traditional obscenities and profanities while at work.

I’ve had this exact conversation twice before. On both occasions I received a phone call from a client who had complained that a person who worked for me (and who they had hired to conduct a training session) had cursed during the training he or she was leading. In both cases the trainer had purposefully sprinkled an occasional profanity into his discussion as a way of “fitting in.” It backfired both times. I followed the script I’ve just given you and the trainer was immediately repentant, apologized profusely, and that was the end of that.

I point this out because I think, if anything, a simple mentioning of the issue will be slightly embarrassing to the other person and you’ll want to soften the impact as much as possible. With this spirit in mind, don’t back off your stance, but do take care not to suggest that he is wrong or insensitive, merely that you’d rather not be exposed to that language at work. Focusing on your wishes rather than his foibles will help keep the conversation more listener friendly.

Good luck and good for you for wanting to step up to the issue.

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

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