14th September, 2021

What to Do About Bitching and Backbiting with Dr Edward Pooley

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

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This week, Dr Edward Pooley teaches us how to respond when colleagues make inappropriate comments about others. He gives us concrete steps to prepare ourselves to speak up when the situation requires.

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Episode transcript

Dr Rachel Morris: We’ve all been there: sitting quietly, feeling really uncomfortable while our coworkers bitch about another colleague. We may want to speak up, stop the conversation, or tell them they’re wrong, but we feel helpless and worried about saying the wrong thing. It’s tempting to think that it doesn’t really matter but this sort of behaviour really undermines trust in an organisation and spreads negativity and bad feeling. It can completely undermine the psychological safety we need to work well as a team.

In this episode, I’m joined again by Dr Ed Pooley. He’s a GP and specialist in communication and time management on a brand new regular slot where we answer all your questions about tricky situations at work. If you’ve got any questions about how to deal with difficult colleagues, communicate with defensive coworkers, or raise issues with unreasonable bosses or thoughtless partners, then please do send them in. Today, we’re thinking about what to do when you hear colleagues backbiting, bitching, or making other inappropriate comments about other people. We think about why it’s important to consider the question behind the question and how you can raise concerns without raising heckles. Join us to find out the consequences of ignoring what’s going on. Join us to find out how to challenge in a supportive way. And join us to find a simple framework for speaking up.

Welcome to You Are Not A Frog, the podcast for doctors and other busy professionals who want to beat burnout and work happier. I am Dr Rachel Morris. I’m a GP, now working as a coach, speaker, and specialist in teaching resilience. Even before the coronavirus crisis, we were facing unprecedented levels of burnout. We have been described as frogs in a pan of slowly boiling water. We hardly notice the extra long days becoming the norm and have got used to feeling stressed and exhausted.

Let’s face it, frogs generally only have two options: stay in the pan and be boiled alive or jump out of the pan and leave. But you are not a frog, and that’s where this podcast comes in. It is possible to craft your working life so that you can thrive even in difficult circumstances, and if you’re happier at work, you’ll simply do a better job. In this podcast, I’ll be inviting you inside the minds of friends, colleagues, and experts, all who have an interesting take on this so that together, we can take back control and love what we do again.

I wanted to let you know that we’re now taking bookings for our Shapes Toolkit Programs for late 2021 and 2022. Now, these programs help doctors, professionals in health and social care, and other high-stress jobs take control of their workload, feel better, and beat stress and burnout. We’ve got a whole range of options to choose from, from holiday programs to webinars and workshops both online and face-to-face. We’ve also got some brand-new sessions on how to influence and negotiate even if you’re not the boss, dealing with conflict, and how to support your team through the new ways of working without burning out yourself.

We’ve also got bespoke sessions for those new to roles in general practice and for frontline staff on topics such as how to reduce drama on the frontline and how to respond to even the most outrageous rudeness. All our training is based on neuroscience and principles of coaching, productivity, and wellness research to give people practical tools that they can use straight away. Find out more by emailing me or get in contact through our website. Now, on with the episode.

It’s brilliant to have with me on the podcast today, Dr Ed Pooley. Ed, welcome back.

Dr Ed Pooley: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Rachel: Really great to have you here. Now, we are going to be dealing with some listeners’ questions. Today, in fact, these questions that we’re going to start off with are questions that have come through your Facebook group, aren’t they? What’s the Facebook group that you run?

Ed: I run a Facebook group for health professionals called Difficult Conversations, which is about how we use techniques from psychology, business, psychotherapy, and communication skills training to have better relationships with patients and colleagues and communicate more effectively.

Rachel: Fantastic and that’s a very active group and you get lots and lots of questions. We thought actually, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to be able to have some discussions about these, get the wisdom that you’re sharing with people out to people as a whole?’ What we’d like to do is start recording these regularly. We would love to hear from any listeners who either have questions that they would like us to discuss on the podcast or if you have any feedback or any suggestions or any things that you’ve done in your own professional life, that would be helpful. We’d love to hear about that. Do email us at hello@youarenotafrog.com. We would just love to hear your questions or your comments.

Let’s kick off with our first question here: What do we do if we are in a workplace, or a surgery, or somewhere else where we hear a lot of backbiting amongst the staff about either somebody else or another staff group? We’re listening to it, and I’ve certainly been in this situation myself, and we’re starting to feel more and more uncomfortable but we’re not saying anything. We’re not challenging, but then we get really worried that by our silence, we could be seen to be colluding. Have you been in that situation?

Ed: I think, first of all, it’s a really good question, isn’t it? Something that we all face, and we’ve all probably had some experience of where you’re in that situation and there’s that conversation going on. Either directly towards you where someone is trying to talk about a colleague and almost canvass your opinion or when you’re overhearing perhaps two other colleagues talk about someone else and you’re a bystander.

Yes, I’ve been in that situation. I think that over the last few years, my way of managing that situation has changed because it’s often one of those things. It’s very difficult to challenge if you don’t have a strategy for it and if you don’t understand the drivers towards it. But it is something that you have to have a strategy to dealing with. Because many times, if you’re getting pulled into a conversation, where an unseen party is being discussed, an unseen person is being discussed, there is a very real risk that you could be accused of colluding with someone who’s bullying. We do those training videos, don’t we, at the start of our placements and our jobs where this is a common example in terms of what do you do when you overhear someone talking about a third person that isn’t there?

So yes, it’s a very common situation. I think, for me, part of me wants to understand why it’s happening. Sometimes, it’s a reflection of poorly dealt with way of managing a genuine grievance. Sometimes the issue that is being raised is actually a problem but it’s being raised in the wrong way, and sometimes, it’s being used as almost a way of connecting with another staff member. But again, it’s in a way that’s not very authentic. The typical example is, it’s almost a reflection of that school playground kind of connection. ‘That Mr Smith was horrible, wasn’t he? That teacher was awful. I didn’t like the way they did that.’ It’s almost a very childlike way of connecting with others.

I think the third time is when it really is a genuine issue that can lead to some serious consequences. I suppose the examples I can think of there are where there is misogyny involved, where there’s racism involved, where it’s outright bullying involved, where comments are being made that are about the characteristics of a person rather than about genuine grievances that could be dealt with in a different way. Those are the three things I would say that I would divide it into. I don’t know whether you would divide it into more or what your take would be on those three categories.

Rachel: I think these three categories are really, really helpful. I think in real life, it’s probably very difficult to determine which is which because maybe, there is a genuine problem which is coming out in the wrong way. But there is a problem. So I think things are rarely really, really black and white, aren’t they? I think one of the biggest things is actually connecting with others as well, that actually we do connect. That’s why we love watching soap operas, isn’t it? Why we will be glued to Line of Duty because we just love seeing things go wrong and be able to talk about the various different characters. It’s a bit of human nature to want to discuss things.

But how do we know the difference between when it is genuinely letting off steam about something and we need to just let it run and the steam needs to be let off and when it has tipped over into something that is really unhelpful that we should be challenging?

Ed: I think some of that is gut feel and experience. I think you know when something feels awkward or unprofessional or inappropriate. I think there’s a difference between saying, ‘Oh, that the cleaner hasn’t picked up that again. They’re not very good, are they?’ And someone saying, ‘That cleaner is not very good. All people of that race are like that.’ Those kind of where it’s not about what someone is doing, but about who they are. That’s that difference between commentary and identity level criticism where there’s an issue.

I think one of the big difficulties actually, one of the reasons this question has come up is that it is really difficult to know when to step in. Because sometimes, things are phrased in such a way that if you step in, someone who was saying could respond, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean it that way.’ Actually, that doesn’t lead to a positive outcome either because then, the behaviour usually persists. I think, it’s probably better to err on the side of caution and actually say something, and you don’t have to jump in all guns blazing.

You could say, ‘Listen, it sounds like you’re a bit frustrated with what happened here but I’m not sure it’s appropriate to be discussing that person. If you’ve got a problem with that person, perhaps go to have a word with them. And that way, we can ensure that this doesn’t happen again rather than talking about it when they’re not here. Because I don’t think that’s going to resolve the situation.’ That would be my approach.

If that line into misogyny, racism, or criticism of protected characteristic started to be involved, if those things start to be involved, I would generally jump in a much firmer way and say, ‘Look, that’s not appropriate. This isn’t about whether a person is a man or a woman. It’s not about their ethnicity. It’s not about their sexuality. This is not an appropriate thing to be doing. If you have a concern about what someone is doing, let’s focus on that but it’s not about the characteristic that you mentioned.’

Rachel: When we did the series of podcasts about racism and it was one about speaking up, they were suggesting that actually, a really non-confrontational way of doing it was just say, ‘What do you mean by that?’ Actually get them to… If they make little snidey comments that could be taken either way, just challenging that, saying, ‘What did you mean by that?’ That’s a little bit of a warning, red flag, saying, ‘I’ve noticed that that’s not quite right.’ Then, they get the opportunity to backtrack and go, ‘Oh, actually, I didn’t quite… I didn’t mean that. That came out badly. I’m not trying to say that.’ Then, they’ve caught themselves and they’ve stopped themselves, and I quite like that. Because I guess what you’re trying to avoid is, and I think this is very difficult to do, is making that person feel shame.

Ed: But nothing actually changes, which is what we’re looking for. We’re looking for a positive outcome or a positive improvement in whatever the situation is. When I’m talking to patients, for example, I have a four-step process and I suppose you can translate that directly to working with staff. The first one, I would say, ‘Well, I’m not sure the relevance of that comment. Can you explain?’ The second: ‘I feel uncomfortable with that word or phrase or statement. Let’s focus on the issue at hand.’ Then, you can escalate it further to: ‘I don’t accept the use of that term. Let’s move on to the issue regarding.’ And then four, ‘That type of statement or phrase or comment is not acceptable here. Regardless of your reasons, we have a zero-tolerance policy about that kind of language.’

What you’re doing is you are, it gives you a way in. It’s easier for many people to not act unless they’ve had the training on how to act and how to confront a situation that doesn’t feel okay. And I think having a stepwise approach works very well. It tends to allow you to enter perhaps a less confrontational level, if that’s needed, so that you’re not triggering that shame and defensiveness in someone else. So that then, it’s not a problem that is pushed away. It’s brought out into the open and dealt with. Because sometimes, people will use expressions because either they think that’s the correct expression or they don’t know, and I think giving them a chance to explain is sometimes helpful. I don’t think it’s helpful all the time but I think it’s sometimes helpful as an initial statement.

Rachel: I love that. I love that. That stepping it up so you’ve got your warning phrase and then it goes up and up and up and up. What if it’s not about a protected characteristic? So that isn’t a problem, but it is just general bitching about somebody. It’s low, low grade bitching. ‘She didn’t come to work again today.’ or ‘They didn’t do this and they always do this and of course, they are…’ It’s all implied, not actually said. We’ve all been there. You’ll sit there, sat there, you’re feeling more and more uncomfortable. ‘I think I need to say something. I just don’t know what to say.’ Would you say that same approach?

Ed: I might start a little softer and say, ‘It sounds like you really notice that this is an issue. How long has that been going on for? Why might that be? What might have caused that person to behave that way?’ What you’re doing is you’re trying to encourage the person to think how the other may be feeling and how that person may have come to that decision. Sometimes, there is no rational reason as to why someone else is behaving in a certain way that you can discern. But I think encouraging that exercise in others helps because it allows you to avoid almost tribalism or in-group, out-group phenomena where everyone’s like, ‘Oh, we’re Team A and the others, they’re Team B, and we can just backbite about them and make comments about them.’

Actually, what you’re doing is if you’re an organisation, it makes a lot more sense for everyone in your organisation to be heard. By asking someone and engaging with them and saying, ‘Why do you think that’s happening? How can we make this feel better? How might you feel if someone was talking about you in this way?’ Because we all know that we’re not perfect. Encourages your organisation to function better, and if your organisation functions better, the employees will be happier.

Because if there’s a lot of backbiting going on, to me, it’s almost a symptom of discontent. Because backbiting doesn’t happen in organisations where everyone is happy, and fulfilled, and listened to, and communication is authentic. Because you’re almost given permission to go up to someone and say, ‘Look, I’m a bit frustrated with that email that you sent. I don’t like it. I feel it was kind of aimed at me. Am I reading the situation wrong or have I got it right?’ If that kind of conversation is permitted, your organisation will function better, and it will grow.

Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with people who are unhappy, who, to some extent, it goes back to that auto-suggestion theory. Kind of like the 1920s and 30s, where constantly saying, ‘Oh, I’m in an organisation that doesn’t listen to me, and that person is useless and rubbish’ tends to make you almost become… It activates those negative thinking circuits in the brain and reinforces that rather than reinforcing the positive ones. I think approaching it from a, ‘Why is this happening? How can we reduce it? What’s really going on here? Is this a symptom of a larger problem?’ Is a really helpful way of course-correcting.

Rachel: What you’re saying is you look for the question behind the question. I’m hearing a lot about this in almost every podcast, people I interview. It’s all about actually what’s behind that. What’s actually going behind what they’re saying? Why is this an issue for them? I was just about to ask, is it good to say the minor stuff just to ignore it and sweep it under the carpet? But then, I was always thinking that and you said this whole thing about auto-suggestion. I think that’s a really important thing to remember that if you’ve sat in and listened to half an hour of someone bitching about somebody else, even if you don’t agree, and you’re trying not to take it on board, the next time you see that person, your brain has almost been programmed to notice the negative and to notice the bad stuff. So actually, it is quite dangerous.

Ed: No one wants to work in an organisation where everyone is miserable and talking about other colleagues. Because if you witnessed that behaviour, if you’re feeling low that day, or you’ve made a mistake, the first thing that you may assume is, ‘Now, they’re going to be talking about me because I’ve seen them do it about other people.’ On the flip side, people don’t want to work in an organisation where everything you say is picked up and acted on and almost therapised into a: ‘Why do you feel that way? How does that…?’

I think some of the minor stuff where people might say things as a one-off, or they might just make a comment, I think sometimes you can just let it go if it’s okay to do that. Again, I would put that caveat in about protected characteristics. I think if someone says something once and it’s off-the-cuff remark, I might just let it go but I might approach in terms of: ‘How are you doing? Are you all right? How’s your day going?’ Just to almost… What I’m not doing is I’m not policing what they’re saying. I’m more concerned by what’s going on for them.

Because in my opinion, everything that you think and say and permit out there into the world is being driven by a thought process. And it just interests me from a people perspective. ‘How did you reach that thought? Are you okay? Or is this a symptom of actually something much, much bigger?’ Because we know that one of the signs of burnout is that people start projecting this discontent of their current role out into the open. It’s almost like the first few signs that there may be something going on.

If you’re in a position where you are seeing an employee do that, a colleague do that, then just check in on and see if they’re okay. I think that’s just about being a kind human. It’s not being a boss or an employee. It is just about being a human to me.

Rachel: Yeah. It’s interesting. You made that point. I was once working somewhere and we had this assistant, let’s call her Sarah. ‘Sarah, how are you doing today?’ She went, ‘Oh, well, it’s dreadful, Rachel, but I guess you can’t polish a turd, can you?’ ‘Okay. You aren’t happy here, are you?’ She left a couple of weeks later.

It’s interesting how different people’s perspectives can be but they can just be like those people, and this person was someone like that. Nothing was ever right. She just constantly bitched about other people. Nobody could do anything even though it’s a really lovely place to work. What do you do about that sort of person? Do you just change the subject whenever they start talking? Do you try and respond with humour? Do you just ignore them?

Ed: I suppose I would look at it a slightly different way. I would say what’s going to be the outcome if that type of communication and interaction keeps going? If there is going to be no negative outcomes, if that’s just the type of person they are and their interaction with others is where they’re saying these kind of things isn’t really going to have an impact, then it’s not my job to change people. My job in an organisation or, say, an employee or a colleague, is to try and make the organisation work as well as it can be.

If it’s not having a direct impact, I think I would let it go. If it is having a direct impact, then I would take that first step and I’d say, ‘Look, is everything okay? Is there something going on here?’ Then, almost play it by ear really. I suppose the subtext of your question is that there are always going to be people who approach the world through a negative lens, and that’s how they interact with people, and that’s how they see the world. Is it our job to try and change everyone to be someone who always sees the glass half full? No, but it is sometimes our job to mediate between those two different viewpoints of the world if we’re faced with a situation that is harming the environment in which we work.

Rachel: Yeah. I guess with this particular person, I’m thinking she was pretty harmless but actually, it wasn’t harmless because we stopped asking her to do things because of the reaction that we’ve had. Then, the work got dumped on the person who was really lovely and friendly and they would always say yes. Maybe it was a strategy for her to keep the work away.

Ed: But people do that. That is a recognised strategy that people who want to either directly avoid work or end up avoiding work will employ. I think we talked about this in the time management episode where people will avoid asking people to do things where they are going to be met with negativity, or whether it’s going to be anger, or whether there’s going to be passive aggression. Because those feelings don’t make us feel good so we will avoid those and the consequence of that is that people who aren’t responding in that way will tend to disproportionately end up doing a bigger volume of work.

Now, it could be that the person who is being aggressive or angry or being perceived that way, when asked to do something, maybe they’re better off having their interaction regulated in a way that they prefer. Actually, you create more time for the person who is going to be asked to take stuff. There is that balancing out of responsibility. The big problem seems to come when the nice person almost gets used up because they’re not given time to do things or time to reset. Because actually, they’re not responding negatively or confrontationally to requests for things. Though, the request could be inappropriate but that’s a separate discussion, really, I think.

Rachel: That’s why it’s so, so important that if we’re running organisations or managing or leading that we get this right in terms of calling out the behaviour that is unhelpful. Because we have another question here which we’ve already talked about a little bit. But if you have got colleagues of staff who are seeing the glass half empty all the time, how do we encourage them to be more positive and to actually have some vision?

Ed: That’s an interesting one. Philosophically, in terms of again, should we be making everyone see the world the way that we do? I suppose really the answer is, is a person able to do what they need to do with the viewpoint that they have? Or actually, does their viewpoint limit what they can do? I think that those sort of 1980s kind of ideas of mission statements for companies that started to creep in was a way of trying to address this problem so that everyone had the same goal and the same drive.

The problem is that everyone doesn’t have the same goal and the same drive. People are individual. They have their own ideas as to what works for them, and what doesn’t work for them, and why they do certain things. I think it’s not really about people seeing the glass full but it’s about engaging that person to do what they need to do because of something that’s important to them.

Let’s say you’ve got an employee who sees the glass half full, doesn’t know why they’re doing something, find a way to either explain why they’re doing something or what it might mean for them or the larger system, because they may not know and that’s why they feel frustrated. Or they may actually have a better way of doing it and they’re seeing the glass as half full because they’re almost being micromanaged into a way of doing something that doesn’t fit. I think, again, it’s about delving a little bit deeper as to why someone feels the way they do and is it something that needs to change? If so, well, let’s move that, let’s give a person a bit more control to try to find that glass full aspect of things.

It’s a bit like the Mary Poppins thing, isn’t it? It’s the find the fun in the task. I know that sounds a little bit trite, but it’s kind of, ‘Well, why are you doing something? How can we engage you positively? Because I know if we engage you positively, you’re more likely to enjoy work. You’re more likely to get the task done on time. You’re more likely to have a sense of achievement if the task is done. And you’re more likely to be loyal to the organisation. So how do we trigger those feelings in you?’ The way we trigger those feelings in us to find out why doing something is important and related that to your own personal circumstances.

Rachel: What makes you tick? I think there’s lots of different reasons why people might be really negative and glass half empty. You’ve already mentioned one and that’s somebody who’s burning out and is really stressed. Certainly, from my own experience, the more stressed I get, the more negative I get. Especially on Sunday evenings, it tends to be just like that. My husband refuses to have deep, meaningful discussions with me on a Sunday evening. He just sticks me in front of a comedy. That’s generally the best thing to do.

But likewise, I can talk about my husband on this podcast because he doesn’t listen, which is great. He is a Myers Briggs INTP, and I have learned over the years that whenever I share an idea with him, he’s programmed to look for the negative and look for the things that might go wrong and the problems. Often, I shared something with him. He’s been quite negative about it and then the next week, he says, ‘Ah, so what about that thing you told me about?’ I’m like, ‘Well, you said it was a little rubbish.’ He said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ It’s just the way he initially responds.

Actually having somebody like that can be incredibly helpful in our organisation. Because they spot the problems. They spot the issues. They call it out. What you’ve got to realise is they just need a little bit of time, and then they’ll start to see the positive. Sometimes, it is just the way that their brain ticks and actually to use that, it’s actually really, really helpful. ‘Okay, that person is being negative. Rather than writing them off as they’re just a negative person, it’s actually what value do they bring to this decision that we’re making?’ That’s really, really important.

The funny about personality, I think what you said about being the wrong fit for the job as well, I think I know that when I was in roles that didn’t suit me, that weren’t playing to my strengths, it made me incredibly negative. That goes in with the stress and the burnouts or whatever. Often, if you just find out what it is again, the question behind the question: what is it that’s making you feel like that? If we can craft your job role to actually get you to do more of the things that bring you joy, that you really are very good at, then maybe some of that negativity will be stopping?

I was talking to a GP the other day and one of his partners was incredibly negative. This guy was speaking to his managing partner and he just basically stopped interacting or running any management decisions past the other partner because of the barrage of negativity that they got. The relationship had become so dysfunctional and I thought, ‘Isn’t that a shame that it hasn’t been addressed?’ It’s one thing you have to address on an employee-employer basis, but what happens when it’s a colleague or even maybe your boss? Or if you’re a portfolio where you’ve got a salaried role and you’re talking to the boss or your manager or a partner, is there anything you can do?

Ed: I think that there are two, well, there are two things that springs to mind, actually. One of the things that lit up in my brain when you mentioned about your husband and the initial critical response is that there’s a really well-known book in management and arenas called Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono. Your husband is a very typical black hat thinker where he’s thinking of the critical issues. One of the exercises in that book is to consider viewing things from a: ‘How do we make this work? What are the problems in it? What are the challenges? How do we overcome things? How do we be creative?’ All of these, you’re almost forced to take a different perceptual position to understand it.

What it does is, it allows people to view things from an alternative perspective so that if you’re not a naturally critical person, you recognise that someone may have critical thoughts about an idea that you have. But actually, it doesn’t mean they think the idea is rubbish. They’re just programmed to find the flaws and actually, what they’re doing is they’re telling you the ways that you can make your product or thing better. They’re actually helping you before you do it rather than get the feedback afterwards to find it hasn’t worked. But it does require a little bit of sitting with some discomfort to take that on board.

I’m a little bit like a Labrador that wants to go run out and play in traffic. I’m a bit, ‘Oh, what about what about this? What about that? What about there?’ My partner has always just… She’s like, ‘Can you just focus on one thing? Can you just get that done?’ I need someone who does that because I need that little bit of direction to say, ‘Actually, this is what you’re focusing on now. Let’s get this done. Let’s just separate out the distraction a little bit.’ I think having different viewpoints works really well.

Rachel: I guess it’s recognising different people’s strengths and then where they’re coming from. But we’re still back to the point that sometimes, there just are people that are bitching, that are negative, or even maybe racist, or bullying or something. You’re sat there feeling really, really uncomfortable and you know to not say anything that really conflicts with your values because it feels like you’re colluding. At the beginning, you said it’s really important to have a strategy for that. What can people do to get themselves a strategy for what they’re going to do next time that happens?

Ed: I think what I would do is have a series of phrases that you can go to that you have almost dry run to see how they feel, to see what they feel like in your words. Because if they sound like someone else’s words, they have less impact. Have a sequence of things that you can say. I think the first thing to do if someone is saying something that triggers that sense of discomfort in you is to say something. Say anything. Cough. Make your presence known. Often, that’s enough just to tell someone, ‘Actually, this isn’t something we should be talking about.’ If you need to speak up, ask someone to clarify what they mean. Just say, ‘What do you mean by that?’ Then, you can gradually increase, almost the force behind your words all the way up to ‘That’s not okay.’ You can say, ‘I feel that’s inappropriate.’

One of the techniques in assertiveness training is to use ‘I feel’ statements. ‘I feel uncomfortable hearing you say that.’ ‘I feel uncomfortable talking about someone when they’re not here.’ ‘I feel that actually what you’re doing is you’re generalising a little bit. I don’t think it’s about this aspect of a person. It may be but actually, you’re feeling a bit frustrated because something else is going on.’ That’s one approach.

The other approach is to look at it from the perspective of why the person is saying and just saying something like, ‘Are you all right? Everything okay?’ Sometimes, enough to interrupt that backbiting comment and to turn the attention on to what might be going on for them. That for some people can… If you are a fairly passive type of person, and if you’re at risk of saying nothing, sometimes, asking how a person is doing is one way of interrupting that process and restoring a sense of a feeling okay.

Rachel: I love that. It strikes me, when we teach coaching, we often teach the support challenge model. That in any conversation, if you want someone to move forward, then it’s not enough just to be really, really supportive and not challenging, because that’s just really cozy. If you’re really challenging without being supportive, well, that’s really confrontational and that’s where you’re going to get the defensiveness, particularly if you add in the judgment: ‘You’re being racist’ immediately, you’re going to get a completely defensive reaction from someone. When people feel shame, they become like a sabre-toothed tiger, don’t they? They just go on the attack if they’re feeling shame themselves. That’s something really to try and avoid.

It’s like what you said earlier, using that non-judgmental language, to just describing what’s happening rather than: ‘You’re being this. You’re being that.’ It’s just: ‘Oh, I noticed that we’re talking about somebody else and they’re not here.’ Just ‘I noticed,’ using the non-judgmental stuff but being really supportive while you do that. ‘I can see. You must have be having a really, really busy day. Are you okay? What can we do to help? Maybe we should part this conversation and bring it up with so and so, just ask them what was going on.’ But then I guess, we’re into the whole realm of is it your place to even challenge? What would you say to someone who would just say, ‘Actually, it’s not my place. It’s not my place to challenge?’

Ed: I think it is. I think that part of diversity training, particularly thing in organisations such as the NHS would say, ‘Actually, it is your place to speak out if you hear someone saying something that is negative about a protected characteristic, or even just mean or horrible.’

Let’s take the scenario where someone says something deeply inappropriate about someone else’s ethnicity. That person makes, say, a complaint to their employer and the employer calls in the person who said whatever was said, and that person says, ‘Well, Ed was there. He thought the same thing.’ Sometimes, that can even be projected onto he said the same thing even if I didn’t say anything at all. Then, I’m in a disciplinary for something that I didn’t do just by virtue of almost being… I think that that’s a big problem.

I think even if you’re not doing it from a moral standpoint, think about it in terms of a legal standpoint. Because there is a very real risk that by not speaking up, you’re really harming the person who’s being criticised here and you’re going to find yourself in hot water. What I would say is that it is hard to speak up about things but the thing that makes it easier is practice. Because if you do it, someone else will do it and if someone else does it, another person will do it and then it becomes part of the culture. This isn’t about telling people how to think or how to feel. This is about encouraging people that there are ways of saying things that are helpful and there are ways of saying things that are unhelpful.

Rachel: Yeah and it strikes me that if you can encourage people to say things to someone else’s, to their face, they’re going to say things in a much, much better way anyway. Because really, you automatically do. If I was to talk about you behind your back, Ed, which I would never do, but I’d be far ruder about you behind your back. One of the big problems in organisations, and particularly in primary care I have found, is the dysfunctions of a team: Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. One of which is fear of conflict, which leads to artificial harmony. When you’re all together in your team, you don’t conflict. You don’t see what’s bothering you and then when you’re outside with other people, you’re slugging everyone else left, right, and centre.

If you can actually up the conflict you have as a team in a good way: ‘Actually, I’m finding the way that you’re doing that, I’m just finding that bit tricky. Is there a way that we can work this out?’ Then, you’ve talked about it, you’ve conflicted, you’ve probably come to a good understanding, and you don’t need to go and bitch about that person behind their backs. Then, you get the accountability, you get results, and you can generally track poorly performing organisations down through those five dysfunctions and end up with lack of conflict, which actually, the basis of that is lack of trust and psychological safety, which is another entire topic.

But I think psychological safety underlies the whole of this because it is not a psychologically safe organisation if people are bitching about other people and getting away with it. Just like you said, you’ll just be thinking, ‘Oh, crumbs. If they’re talking about this and I’m here, what can they say about me behind my back?’

Ed: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Rachel: Right. I think we’re just about out of time, Ed. There’s some really useful, helpful tips. If someone is really struggling with this, is there any good resources you point them towards if they want to get a bit better at doing this about challenging and in a supportive way, in a way that’s going to be really helpful?

Ed: There are some resources that I put on my Facebook group so people can have a look at that and I’ll send you the link for that. I’ve done some particularly on things like saying no, and team dysfunctions, and approaching racism, and other comments about protected characteristics. There are quite a few books coming out now about looking at things from other people’s perspectives and how you might go about being an ally to other people and standing up for them and showing solidarity with that person.

Rachel: Yeah and we’ve got some podcasts, actually, that I think will help those combating racism theories. Particularly, the one about how to be more anti-racist. Adam Harrison did one with us about bullying in the workplace.

Ed: Yes, he’s excellent with that sort of stuff, isn’t he?

Rachel: Yeah. Fantastic. You’ll see that Edward de Bono book about, what’s that called The Six Thinking Hats that you mentioned? There’s the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. I would also suggest that people listen to this Rangan Chatterjee podcast. I think it’s called Live Well, Feel Better and there was a, I was telling about this earlier, actually. There’s a really good one. I think it’s called How to Develop Authentic Relationships or Deepen Your Relationships by a couple of people who wrote a book called Connect. That is all about how to have conversations with people, raising difficult issues without triggering them, without making them feel really defensive and I found that really helpful so that might be helpful for people as well. There’s another book called Radical Candor as well, which I think people have found very helpful. There’s just a few things, but I think if you had one tip to someone who actually just got started with this, what would it be, Ed?

Ed: It would be try. All of the things that we do when we communicate, the first thing we have to do is try to communicate first and then we fashion it into the best way that we can say something. But the first thing you have to do is say something.

Rachel: Yeah, try it, even if it’s just a cough or, ‘Are you all right?’ But you’ve raised something. Brilliant. Thank you so much, Ed. We’re going to get Ed back in another couple of weeks. If you have any questions about any communication or difficult conversation that you’d like us to talk about or any feedback, then do drop us a line. We’ll put links in the show notes. Thank you, Ed, and we’ll see you soon.

Ed: Okay. Take care. Bye.

Rachel: Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it with your friends and colleagues. Please subscribe to my You Are Not A Frog email list and subscribe to the podcast. If you have enjoyed it, then please leave me a rating wherever you listen to your podcasts. Keep well, everyone. You’re doing a great job. You got this.