How to Talk to the Person who Disrespected you at Work
The reality is that it shouldn’t be on you to facilitate a conversation, it should be on them not to harass you. That said, in many cases a direct conversation is an important first step to take back your power and create healing and closure — on your own terms.
If you decide a direct conversation is the right path for you, here’s how to do it:
Develop a support team
You are going to need a support team through this process. You’ll need at least one person in your personal life who’s got your back (your family, partner, friend) and one person in your work life. Your work support team member should be willing to attend important discussions with you. You’re going to need to be clear with support team members on their roles.
The role of the personal support team:
- Listen to your story without judging you or telling you “what you should have done.”
- Help you think through what you’re going to say to this person, and practice with you (seriously. Everyone hates a role play but you have to get embodied about this. It’s hard.)
- Check-in on you. Make sure you have the emotional support you need to feel supported.
Role of the work support team:
- Just like with your personal support team, they should be able to listen to your story without judging you or telling you “what you should have done.”
- Attend the conversation. They don’t need to say anything – they should avoid fighting this battle for you. But, they can interject if/when they see you struggle.
- During and after the conversation, they need to document in writing the discussion points.
- They should be willing to participate in an investigation if you decide to elevate your concern.
Prepare what you want to say
Take some time to layout — on paper — what you want to say. For these conversations to be effective, you’re going to want to enter calm, collected, and in control. That requires preparation.
Grab a piece of paper or open up a new document on your computer. Start by answering these questions:
- What happened? Include details such as location, time, people present, etc. Look through old emails, your calendar, etc, to get confident about the details of your story.
- How did it make you feel? Be explicit. The goal here is for them to see you as fully human — and to realize the impact of their mistake.
- What would you like to see happen now? Do you want the behavior to stop? Mediation? Transferred to a new department? An apology? A donation to a nonprofit?
Now, take a moment to reflect on how you’re feeling about the conversation. This will help you with your preparation.
- What are you most worried about with this conversation? What is the worst possible scenario?
- What do you hope this conversation will produce? What is the best possible scenario?
- What is the most realistic outcome? How would you feel about this outcome?
- These conversations might leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed. What do you want the most vulnerable part of yourself to know right now?
Now it’s time to practice with your personal support team. The structure of your conversation will be simple and will be based on your prep work. It is as follows:
- Tell the person you’d like to talk with them about something that happened. Go ahead and let them know this conversation may be difficult for both of you. (This gives them a chance to prepare for what’s next and recognize this is hard for you, too).
- Describe what happened in detail. Stick to the facts. When you’re done, ask them “do you remember this?” Give them the space to give any edits or additions to the story. If they say something you disagree with, say “that’s not how I remember it”, but don’t engage them in a back-and-forth. Most people at this juncture will just say “yes” because they are waiting for what is next.
- Tell them how it made you feel. It can be hard to share your feelings with someone who just hurt you (it’s hard to be vulnerable), but it’s important that they know the impact. It’s also important you model vulnerability because you’re asking them to be vulnerable too — vulnerable enough to admit they did wrong.
- Tell them what you want to happen next. Use your prep work to inform this section. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need here, and don’t expect them to volunteer anything that you don’t ask for (including an apology).
- Offer to continue the conversation. At this point, they are likely in some sort of a shame spiral that could result in them blaming you (“you’re so sensitive!”) or bouncing out of accountability (“but I’m not a racist!”) or just being quiet, sullen, and withdrawn. True apologies often take time and give this person the space for reflection and growth. Allow them to hear you and change — and then come back to the conversation. By asking them for a follow-up conversation you’re holding them accountable – and, importantly, “owning” the situation.
You’ll want to practice with your support person over a few rounds. For the first round, your support person should role-play the “best possible outcome” you outlined in your prep work. They should let you get through what you want to say and build confidence saying it.
On the second round, they should role-play the “worst possible outcome.” Here, your support partner is intentionally trying to trigger you. You want to establish a sense of when you can take it and stay in conversation and when you need to stop. It’s ok to walk away with this conversation incomplete. You can follow up with another one later, or you can try a different approach for managing this issue. You’re in charge.
On the third round, they should role-play the “most realistic outcome.” This should be somewhere in the middle of the best and worst outcome. Here, your support partner will throw some, but not too many, obstacles in the path of you getting through this conversation. You should practice getting thrown off and redirecting the conversation.
The big day is here and it’s time to have this conversation. Some things to consider that may help support you:
- Wear something professional that you feel confident and comfortable in.
- Get comfortable and grounded. When you sit down in the chair before it starts, take a minute to feel your feet on the floor, your butt in the chair. Look at the cracks and crevices of the walls in the room.
- Consider bringing a support item. For some people, this may be a photo of their kid to remember what matters, for others it may be a crystal or other small, meaningful object.
- Make sure your support team know that today is the day so that they are there to support you before, during, and after.
- Have a plan for post-conversation. What are you going to do afterward? If “go back to work is your plan,” think again. Even if you only have 10 minutes to yourself before heading back to the office, can you call a friend? Journal out your feelings? Sit in the sun and remind yourself that you are safe?
Regardless of the outcome of the conversation, don’t blame yourself. As a reminder, harassment and disrespect are never your fault, and it’s not your responsibility to have the perfect response. You did your best. It is up to the other person to decide if they are willing to show up into this moment with kindness and a willingness to grow and change.
The follow-up conversation
This conversation is ultimately about accountability. It should go something like this:
- Thank them for meeting with you again, and ask them if they had any reflections after your last conversation they would be willing to share. If they try and re-litigate what happened, don’t feel like you have to keep re-telling the story. Tell them simply “that’s not what I remember” and redirect the conversation. If they try and explain to you that’s not what they meant, tell them “I appreciate that, but it made me feel XYZ.” If they have questions, you can answer them as you feel comfortable — but if the questions are leading ones, i.e. “so are you saying I’m not allowed to say what I think?” tell them they are intentionally misrepresenting your concerns to avoid accountability, and redirect them to the second part of this conversation: taking accountability.
- Ask them if they are able to give you what you asked for in the first conversation (an apology, transferred to a new department, etc). If they are unable or unwilling to give you what you asked for, reflect on how that makes you feel and take some time to decide on the next steps. You can still report it to HR, your manager, or a government agency. If they are able to give you what you asked for, great!
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation and aftermath, you will need to heal – which can be hard whether you stay in the workplace or go to another.
This guide is evolving. Have more tips for people having these kinds of conversations? Email us at [email protected]