Toxic Culture: He Said…..She Said….She Didn’t Say…They Said…

By Karetta Hubbard, Lynne Revo-Cohen, Gwen Crider, and Dr. Chris Kilmartin

Many readers wrote to ask our thoughts regarding the article in Babe, an online magazine interview with “Grace,” the fictional name of the young woman who had a date with comedian Aziz Ansari.  Without repeating the numerous accounts of the evening already posted in the press, and without assigning blame, it occurs to us that The Issue is about how to have Crucial Conversations.

Our sexual harassment/assault practice has taught us that most men and woman want to do the right thing. But right now, in this real time moment, the fear of doing the wrong thing, saying or acting inappropriately far outweighs taking any action at all.  We are hearing that men are reticent to ask women out on dates, that when on a date, women are leery of saying what they actually feel or want, sometimes fearful they will offend their date.  This goes for both men dating other men and women dating women.  Another unintended consequence is that both men and women in the workplace are afraid to mentor younger employees for fear of offending the mentee.  Also, we hear from both men and women that they are simply “scared silent!”

Often, we are taught that being right is important.  We equate being heard with being right and often expect the automatic acceptance of our position by the other person. Ever play ‘telephone’? If so, you know that the phrase you began with and passed along to the next person, when passing through the lips of the last person, is not only not what you said, most times it is hysterically different.    

The same phenomenon can occur between two people as among ten people. When we think the other person isn’t paying attention and/or we don’t feel heard we tend to push harder.  What happens next?  The person receiving your information may shut down, may change the subject, ignore your thoughts or resume his/her position before the conversation began.

So, how to begin the Crucial Conversation? 

1. Some ground rules and simple suggestions. 

  • First don’t assume that you are right and the other person is wrong No one is ever right or wrong on every issue.  Conversations take place so each side can express their thoughts and feelings.   Each side can listen, learn and state their opinions. 
  • Decide at the outset what you want from the conversation.  What is the best outcome for you?  If you don’t know, then state this, and explain that your hope is that what you want will become clearer as the discussion takes form and substance.
  • Agree to disagree. EVERYONE sees the same situation through their filters, and not every filter results in the same perspective.
  • Agree that each person will be able to finish talking before the other one jumps into the conversation. Acknowledge periodically that you hear the other person’s point of view. You may also want to ask them if they understand what you are trying to say. 
  • If the conversation doesn’t go the way you would like, take a pause and continue at another time after you have again thought through your preferred outcome.

2.   Beginning the uncomfortable Conversation in workplace situations. (Noting these techniques can be used in personal circumstances too.) Using eye contact and begin with one of the first two approaches: 

  • “I have something I would like to talk with you about, do you have time to talk?”
  • “I would like your help with an issue that is bothering me. I would like your feelings (perspective) about this too”. 

Then launch into specifics:

  • “When you touch me, it makes me feel uncomfortable (and/or you could say I am tense, embarrassed, uneasy).”
  • “I had different expectations from our relationship.  I prefer to keep it professional  (and/or, to respect our work space; and/or to continue to enjoy working on our joint projects).”
  • “When you refer to women in a disrespectful way like “that bitch” it makes me feel nervous, (or angry) and I’m not sure how to respond.  How about when we are together you avoid saying stuff like that?  I would really appreciate it.”

3.  Successful Outcomes:

  • Know why this conversation is important to you. You may have to repeat the reason to the other person several times.
  • Listen to what is important to the other person. Ask him or her to repeat it if you need to understand fully.  Once you do understand what he or she wants, then be sure you can adjust your desires with this goal, and/or can accept it.
  • Curiosity killed the cat or so they say.  However, when listening to the other person, curiosity can be your best friend.  Learn as much as you can through these dialogues. Remember you can always end the conversation if the outcomes don’t suit your desires. If the other person changes their behavior in the way you asked, remember to say thanks, that you appreciate being heard.  Same thing if you make a “slip” and offend someone else and they tell you it offended them; no need to defend yourself in a long dialogue of what you meant, just say you are sorry and thank them for telling you.
  • Most importantly, you have crossed the divide into productive dialogue, and can continue to use these suggestions to your benefit.  If this is a relationship you want to continue, problem solving solutions with the person is the next best step. 
  • Practice, practice, practice. 

The preceding is based on Kilmartin, C. T. (2017).  Male allies to women.  In J. Schwarz (Ed.), Counseling women across the lifespan: Empowerment, advocacy, and intervention. New York: Springer.

About KHubbard LRevo-Cohen GCrider Chris Kilmartin Maria Morukian (34 Articles)
Since 1984, the founders of NewPoint Strategies, Karetta Hubbard and Lynne Revo-Cohen, have built a strong reputation for delivering extremely effective prevention training in high-risk issues such as sexual harassment/assault. Contributing Author and Lead Consultant, Chris Kilmartin, Ph.D, Emeritus Professor of Psychology from the University of Mary Washington, is an expert in Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention, specifically Male Violence Against Women, Gwen Crider, a diversity and inclusion strategist with over 20 years of leadership experience in non-profit and private sector organizations, and Maria Morukian is an internationally recognized diversity expert