If the topic of sexual harassment hasn’t come up in your office – either on Slack, in conversations over lunch, or by the watercooler — I’d be surprised. With the ongoing #metoo campaign and the almost daily headlines about men accused of harassing their coworkers, this subject is top of mind for many of us. But these conversations are tricky. You may be — understandably — nervous about how to handle the subject if (when) it comes up. So is it better to steer clear altogether? Or can you have a thoughtful, productive discussion? And when you do engage, how do you respond to someone who says something you find insensitive or offensive?
To help answer these questions, I turned to two experts and HBR contributors: Holly Weeks, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them, and David G. Smith, a professor at the US Naval War College and coauthor of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women.
Weeks and Smith agree that this is an area of conversation where it’s imperative to proceed carefully, especially now when emotions are heightened. “We are in a morass of weirdness and discomfort,” says Weeks. “People are struggling terribly and so afraid they’ll make a mistake.”
Some men are completely unsure what to say and how to act; some women are frustrated with their male colleagues’ lack of empathy. “Each side is very likely to trigger the other – maybe not on purpose but not entirely innocently either,” she says. Smith points out that it’s imperative for men, in particular, to be part of these discussions: “This is not the time to fade into the woodwork and isolate ourselves. We need to talk about what we stand for, what’s acceptable, and what isn’t.”
Here are some practical tips for how to navigate this challenging terrain.
Know your goal
As with any potentially tense discussion, the first step is to understand what you’re trying to achieve. While the conversation may feel like a debate, there shouldn’t be winners and losers. “The idea of ‘winning’ a conversation like this is missing the point,” says Weeks. Nor do you want to set out to make the other person feel like an insensitive fool. “A good outcome is not that your partner says, ‘You’re right and I was wrong’ but that they say, ‘This is a manageable conversation that I can participate in.” Don’t focus on trying to convince your colleagues of your perspective. Enter the conversation with the intention of learning something new and sharing your viewpoint.
Consider whether to share your personal experiences
In any hard conversation, it can be tricky to disclose personal stories. When you attach the topic to your identity or personal experience, it can make it challenging to keep the conversation going; your counterparts may not feel they have the “psychological standing” to continue. That’s also true in this case.
Of course, women who have been brave enough to report harassment and share their stories have powered this broader cultural conversation. Even so, sharing personal experiences during a casual conversation with coworkers can sometimes be counterproductive. This isn’t to say that if you experienced sexual harassment that you should remain silent. But in a spontaneous office conversation, this kind of disclosure, especially to someone you don’t have a close relationship with, may derail a conversation and leave you vulnerable to comments or reactions you don’t want to hear. “You’ll likely be met with grotesque discomfort,” Weeks says. “People in the room may panic about how they should react and worry that they won’t do the right thing.” It can be more effective to say something like, “What I know from women who have been in this situation is that…”
That said, if someone shares a personal story with you, stay calm and don’t make them feel bad for doing so. “There is sometimes a kneejerk response to dismiss or minimize someone’s experience,” says Weeks. “If one of your employees tells you a story about something distasteful and shocking, try saying, ‘Thank you for telling me.’”
Be OK with being uncomfortable
Smith says that the men he’s spoken to for his research are often worried things are going to “shift too far” and that “guys can’t be guys anymore.” While it may feel uncomfortable to talk about these things, he says, it’s important to stick with it. “There are aspects of masculinity that do need to be questioned because they are harmful to women and our relationships with women at work, but also to ourselves and our families.” Don’t let your discomfort with this topic, or the emotions it stirs up, stop you from talking about it. Keep your feelings in check. “You may be angry personally, but if you want to have a conversation with someone, anger doesn’t really serve you,” Weeks says. “We all have the ability to stay calm in tense situations. You just have to bring that to bear here.”
Listen, listen, listen
Try to listen more than you talk. “Approach the conversation with intellectual curiosity,” says Smith. Use phrases like, “Tell me more about that” or “What do you mean?” or “What leads you to believe that?” If you’re not sure what to say, it’s OK to just be silent. Smith thinks listening is a particularly useful tactic for men. “Men need to begin asking questions, listen to their female colleagues, and learn about what’s going on,” he says. “Have an open mind that you might not be perfect.”
Assume positive intent
The conversation will always go more smoothly if you give the other person the benefit of the doubt and regularly remind yourself that this is a tough topic to talk about — for everyone. When someone says something you think is off base, don’t jump down their throat. Your task is not to put the person on the defensive. Weeks suggests “granting the person their premise” and then answering from there. So instead of saying, “That’s crazy,” say “I hear what you’ve said” or “I can see how you would think that.” For example, if a male colleague keeps emphasizing how shocked he is by the magnitude of the situation, and you’re frustrated by his seeming cluelessness, Weeks suggests saying something like, “I understand. Women find these situations to be so difficult to reveal and discuss that it’s entirely possible that you could have not yet heard about this before.”
Take the pressure off
Because it’s tough for people to stay in conversations about difficult topics like sexual harassment, look for ways that you can make it easier for them. “As soon as the other person thinks, ‘I can’t psychologically afford to listen to this,’ you’ve lost them,” says Weeks. She spends a great deal of time in difficult conversations trying to make sure that she isn’t pointing fingers, encouraging guilt, or asking the other person to take care of her. “I try to take the pressure off, not because I’m a generous-hearted person but because I don’t want the conversation to fail,” she says. Use tentative, non-threatening language. You might try out phrases like, “I think you might be mistaken there” or “I have a different perspective.”
Have language ready
It can be hard to choose the right words in the moment so it may help to think through how you might respond to different types of statements. Here are some of the things your coworkers – both men and women — might say and some sample responses from Weeks and Smith.
- “I know I’m going to get in trouble for saying this…” Weeks says this is often a way for the speaker to deflect responsibility for what they are about to say but rather than angrily calling the person out, try saying, “It will be OK. We’ve discussed tough things before.”
- “I just don’t believe all those women are telling the truth.” It’s better to avoid debates over whether particular allegations are true. You don’t have to get into details or a discussion over validity to stand up for what you think is right, says Smith. You might say, “I don’t know if a particular allegation is true, but if it is, it’s inappropriate behavior.”
- “Men couldn’t possibly understand what this is like” or another statement that dismisses any male response. Here you might try, “I’d really like to understand as best as I can. Can you help me?”
- “This is going too far” or something else that implies that men might be victimized by the accusations. Smith recommends saying, “Men still have a lot of advantages and if this conversation swings the pendulum closer to equity, that’s a good thing.”
- “I just won’t be alone with women any more. It’s too dangerous.” Quarantining women isn’t going to work, and it doesn’t protect them. In fact, it hurts their career prospects. You might try saying, “I can see why you’d say that. I don’t think that’s a practical solution though.” Weeks says that there are lots of ways to convey respect and warmth that don’t involve touching someone, especially without their permission.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
It’s easy to get defensive in conversations like these, especially if you feel like you are being unfairly grouped into a category (predatory males, insensitive buffoons, or oversensitive women, to name a few). Spend some time thinking about what it’s like for the other person. Some of the people you’re speaking with might be afraid that long-standing norms are being questioned, or feel threatened by the sudden outpouring of allegations – and subsequent firings and resignations of alleged harassers. Others might be deeply offended by any suggestion that this moment of reckoning is happening too fast. Some might be survivors of sexual assault or harassment, themselves. Others may simply be confused by it all. Before you have these conversations, take some time to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Empathy will help make the discussion go more smoothly. And don’t make assumptions. You can’t know what your conversational partner has been through or feels about this situation. That’s why curiosity is so important.
Forgive conversational missteps
Chances are that you or other people in the conversation will say things that you regret or that you wish you’d worded differently. Instead of pointing out every offensive statement, let the conversation flow and forgive yourself and others for any mistakes made. If you get something wrong, you can always revisit the conversation later and apologize.
This is a messy process and an ongoing conversation. As Smith says, “This is just the tip of the iceberg.” These allegations are likely to continue and we are only at the beginning of what is probably going to be a lengthy exploration of sexual harassment and its implications. So focus on starting the conversation, not finishing it.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 12/11/17.
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