Fend off offensive people

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in Workplace Communication,Workplace Conflict

by Morey Stettner

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch engages in lively e-mail exchanges with subscribers who receive his periodic online commentaries. As reported in The New York Times, a subscriber sent Koch a particularly cruel e-mail.

"I'm hoping it's just Alzheimer's that has made you so confused," the critic wrote.

I was impressed by Koch's levelheaded reply. Instead of lowering himself to the critic's level, Koch replied, "Your outrageous comment simply because we disagree on a political matter is unacceptable, and precludes further communication."

Now that's how to bring a critic down to size.

All too often, we lose our composure when someone makes an inflammatory statement. We may fly off the handle and respond with uncharacteristic hostility.

Years ago, I made cold calls for a brokerage firm. My goal was to get executives to agree to talk with our investment advisor. I remember someone yelling, "How dare you bother me on such a busy day!"

I should have hung up. Instead, I replied in a loud voice, "How dare you talk to me like that!"

Of course, my indignant comment prolonged what was already a fruitless conversation. My boss wasn't pleased and taught me to control my emotions.

When someone presses our hot button, we need to choose how to respond. Yes, that's hard to do. But mirroring the other person—and unleashing our nastiness—almost guarantees that a conflict will intensify.

Maintaining our cool in writing is even more crucial because a paper trail tells its own story. If Koch sent an impulsively angry reply, he could come away looking just as bad as his insensitive critic.

How do you fend off offensive behavior? E-mail me at mpaweditor@mcmurry.com with your best strategies.

Bottom-Line Idea

When employees disagree with you, you have a choice: You can engage in a dialogue to learn more or dismissively wave them away. By welcoming debate, you show that you're open-minded and that you reserve judgment. You also get a better sense of an employee's critical reasoning skills. Just make sure to maintain a friendly facial expression (no scowling!) as you say, "Tell me more."

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