Helping Supervisors1 Diffuse Potentially Difficult Situations
by Michael Kelly, MA
Forget for the moment your social circle, your cultural group, your corporate affiliation, your nation state. At the very least, every person needs to know they belong on this planet.
Michael Kelly, 2011
One of the less remembered scenes from Henry Fonda’s 1957 version of Twelve Angry Men involves juror number 9, played by Joseph Sweeney. At one point he’s describing an elderly witness in a murder trial, saying,
I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition—his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing. A man like this needs to be recognized. To be questioned, and listened to, and quoted just once. This is very important.
Sweeney’s “frightened, insignificant man” could almost represent anyone in a stressed and vulnerable emotional state. This could include angry people, complainers and even whiners, all who seek significance, connection, identity and ultimately belonging – what we call recognition.2 Their presence needs to be recognized and acknowledged.
At times our responses to their need can provoke tension, particularly when in exasperation we lose our composure and recoil in a negative manner. The trick is to respond in a positive, or at least neutral, way.
How do we do this without escalating interpersonal tensions? How does a composed supervisor listen to the angry person, the chronic complainer or the whiner. Moreover, how does the supervisor acknowledge the person and still move on with the work that needs to be done?
Why not try acknowledgment statements?
- Active listening – where I say back to someone what they just said to me, thereby acknowledging the other person and that person’s issue or concern. We also look for a place where we can agree with them.3
- Pause – where I take just enough of a pause to help reframe the communication.
- Reframe – where I change the focus to the future so I can move on to the task at hand.
- Prime the pump – where I get into the task itself (usually with an appropriate, prompting, body language expression).
Supervisor: I know it’s late but could you give me a hand moving this table?
Whiner: Ahhhhhhhh, why me? I’m tooooo tired and it’s been a loooooong day and I just want to go home and …
Note how at this point it would be tempting to retaliate in anger or condescension, perhaps by saying “shut up and quit your whining.” That would be unproductive, leaving the other person worse off than we found them and potentially poisoning our relationship for the future. It might also be tempting to simply give in and do it ourselves, in which case we would be leaving ourselves worse off than we were.
Instead, the supervisor might respond saying the following:
- Actively Listen: “I hear ya. It can be pretty tough starting a new job late in the shift.” Notice how the supervisor restates the issue using a point of agreement, in this case twigging on being tired at the end of a long day.
- Short pause: Take a deep breath, or what I call a silent segue using neutral body language, enough to make it easy to proceed to the next, reframing step.
- Reframe: “Tell you what. It’s gotta get done so we’d better get a start now. How about you grab that end, I’ll grab this end.”
- Physically Prime The Pump: Physically move to grab your end of the table. This creates an inertia in favour of the task at hand, rather than an invitation to continue whining.
The supervisor can discuss the complaint or complaints in more detail later if required.
- Or parents, or managers, or anyone in the presence of negativity… ↩
- A few points need to be made here. First, whining is basically defined as musical complaining. Whiners tend to speak in run-on sentences with raised vocal modulations, giving their complaint a musical quality. Second, complaints can be persistent. One organization refers to their chronic complainers as CAVE people – CAVE standing for “complain about virtually everything.” Third, chronic complaints vary in magnitude. For example, some employees’ chronic complaints signal deeper physical and emotional issues, others are purely recreational (complain about the weather, etc.), while others are without foundation, based on rumour or gossip. At times their complaints happen just when a supervisor needs to carry on with a task at hand. ↩
- The active listener needs to respond to negativity without leaving the other person worse off then they found them, and without leaving themselves worse off too. Arguing, which counters negatives with positives, or amplifying, which adds a negative too the existing negative, servers only to extend the complaint. See “How To Respond To Negativity” by Peter Bergman. Harvard Business Review, September, 2012. ↩