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Learning How to Talk About the Tough Things Will Help You and Your Organization Thrive

There’s a lot going on in America right now. The midterm elections are just around the corner. Roe v. Wade was overturned. Conversations around anti-bias education are heating up. Marriage equality is under threat. It’s a lot to take in, especially since these issues are contributing to our country’s ever-growing divisiveness and discord.

For many of us, when we’re faced with big issues like this—issues that we seemingly have very little control over—we start to feel like we don’t have control over anything. It seems like the big-scale stuff going on out there makes it harder to deal with the smaller-scale stuff going on in our personal and professional lives.

As a result, it’s easy to feel like responding to the seemingly little things that trigger and hurt us (especially in a professional setting) is too overwhelming, not to mention useless. If you feel like that, I get it: when everyone seems to be on a hair trigger, it often feels safer to stay quiet.

In today’s climate, stuffing our feelings down and not speaking up when something triggers us is a natural response, but it’s actually the opposite of what we should be doing. Please understand me: I’m not advocating for unproductive behavior that only leads to anger and more discord. I’m also not advocating that people shut others out or “cancel” them if they say or do something the person finds offensive.

What I am advocating for is far more beneficial. I’m advocating for all of us to learn how to talk to each other in a civil, compassionate, and effective way about the tough things that affect us. Doing so will help everyone thrive.

Finding Compassionate Conviction

One of the most important places to start addressing hard things is in your professional environment. For example, let’s say you’re walking to a meeting and overhear someone say, “Those people should go back to where they came from.” Or maybe, as you’re leaving for the day, a colleague comes over to you and says, “If you wore a little bit of make-up, you would look better.”

Maybe you’re talking to someone in the breakroom, and the phrase, “That’s gay!” pops out of that person’s mouth. Or one of your teammates, in complaining about someone else, says, “He’s just a dumb jock.”

All of these phrases—and thousands more like them—get thrown around in companies across the U.S. every single day. Often, they come out of people’s mouths with very little thought. Sometimes they are meant to hurt, and sometimes they’re not. No matter what the intention is, though, comments like these can leave the people around them reeling. And left unchecked, the chances are vanishingly small that anything will change.

What are the ramifications of staying quiet in scenarios like this, of not finding the compassionate conviction to address the situation? Well, if you’ve ever been around someone making comments like these and haven’t said anything—and if you have, you’re certainly not alone; most of us have been in this situation at some point or another—you know the answer to this question firsthand.

Ignoring your own discomfort, especially in the professional setting where you spend so much of your time, can significantly lower your morale. It can destroy your trust in your team members, which can eventually morph into distrust for your entire organization. A decrease in happiness can decrease your productivity, too, and that also creates ripple effects that affect everyone else.

Engage In Transformative Dialogue

Given all of this, it’s obvious that staying quiet won’t help you avoid negative consequences. But speaking up can feel scary—unless you have a framework that enables you to engage in transformative dialogue.

Let me be clear: having a framework doesn’t necessarily take the place of going to your HR department, if that’s what the situation calls for. But it can help you engage with others from an authentic place and increase your understanding and empathy for them. Even better, it can help you share what you’re feeling, which will mitigate the internal effects of the situation and create a healthier environment for you.

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The RIR (Recognize, Interrupt, Repair) Protocol is a great framework for helping you achieve all these goals. The RIR Protocol™ offers a way to respond to situations that trigger you instead of reacting. It will allow you to pause, reflect, and address the situation, whether or not the other person is familiar with the Protocol or not.

Ultimately, the Protocol is a way to create a healthy environment for yourself without feeling like you need to fix the other person. When you acknowledge that avoiding tough conversations is unhealthy, and then embrace and practice the Protocol, you can stop carrying negativity around with you. Just as importantly, when you use the Protocol, you can intentionally create a work environment that is safe and civil.

Be Fully Present

The first step of the Protocol is all about checking in with yourself. What emotion did the comment or situation cause in you? Identifying this may take some practice; while learning how to recognize what you’re feeling is crucial, it’s not something that most of us are taught (or encouraged) to do.

When someone dismisses someone else as a “dumb jock” or says something is “gay,” for example, does it make you feel hurt? Angry? Belittled? Threatened? Scared? A combination of some or all of these? There’s no right answer here; what’s important is to take the time necessary to connect with how you’re feeling.

Once you’ve done that, move to the second step: interruption. Think of the interruption as an invitation to find out what the other person meant by their comment. This step shouldn’t be aggressive; it can be as simple as saying, “When you said X, it brought up some feelings in me. Can you share what you meant by that comment?”

When the other person talks, really listen. Doing this isn’t always easy, but leaning into that first step (the “recognize” part of the Protocol) can help you move through your reaction and into a place where you can be fully present and engaged.

Repair and Move Forward

Once you’ve recognized your emotional response and interrupted, you may want to sit with what the other person said for a while. Whether you choose to wait or not, though, it’s important that at some point you take the time to complete the final step: repair.

Repairing is a way to put closure on what happened and move forward, and it’s especially important in a work environment. It can be as simple as grabbing a coffee with the person or engaging them in a conversation about a neutral topic. Repairs look different in every situation, but whatever form they take, the goal of this step is to make sure you can move forward without animosity.

This step is vital to the whole process; it’s what ultimately helps you engender the kind of cohesive community a healthy work environment should have. On top of that, it helps develop and deepen healthy lines of communication, so if there are future incidents, you have a solid foundation from which to address them.

Speak Up With Confidence

The Protocol is a powerful way to engage in compassionate dialogue about difficult and challenging topics. The more you utilize it, the better you will get at it, and the more confident you will be.

That being said, using it for the first time can be daunting. It’s hard to speak up in emotionally charged situations, hard to share what you’re feeling or offer thoughts that might feel like they aren’t part of the status quo. For that reason, it’s helpful to practice using the Protocol. Trying the steps out in a safe scenario will help you respond more quickly and appropriately to real-world situations.

When the time comes to use the Protocol, remember to check in with yourself. Speaking up can be challenging, but intentionally establishing that connection with yourself will help you move to a place of authentic receptivity. It will help you summon your compassionate conviction to engage with the other person.

Best of all, it will help you release the need to blame the other person, fix them, or penalize them. Instead, you will be able to compassionately stand in your own truth, meet the other person in theirs, and find a way to move forward without compromising your integrity or stuffing your feelings down.

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