Listening to a report of inappropriate behavior

Suppose one of your employees comes to you to report inappropriate behavior by a colleague or to discuss something else, what do you want for him or her?

Recently, companies and their leaders in The Netherlands have become more aware of the fact that inappropriate behavior and sharing of inappropriate pictures can also occur in their organization. Unfortunately, we have seen examples on the news. Sexual remarks or other unpleasant comments towards female or male employees, made by colleagues or managers, that are not seen as appropriate by the person to whom they are addressed. What may seem like a joke or an attempt to hitting on someone, may seem threatening, unsafe or uncomfortable to another.

I wonder what you think we can do as leaders or colleagues if someone wants to talk about what happened to them?

My idea would be to create a safe space in which this person feels heard and really listened to, so that he or she feels taken seriously and supported. But how? Here are some essential guidelines and my thoughts to help you further. I would like to invite you to share yours.

Attentively present

Research says that a person feels heard when the other person (leader, colleague, listener) is attentively present. There is a difference between being present and being attentively present. Another person can see when we are present in the room, but when our mind is elsewhere. The lack of sincere attention and interest feels like not being heard.

How can we be attentively present?

The listener should take a few moments to feel his or her body. What do I feel and think? Is it tension, anxiety, panic (How should I help this person? What should I do? I don’t want this. I can’t believe this really happened!). It is normal to feel and think things like this. Be aware of it. Then take a few deep breaths in and out and try to relax a little more.

If you do not do this, you will have difficulty listening to the other person and you will unconsciously react from that tension. For example, by explaining that these things happen in a male-female environment. That it is very sad and that you feel sorry for him or her. The second part is ok, the first part is not. Avoid trying to explain or analyze things. You don’t know yet how they feel. You just have to listen to understand them. Truly listen with peace. Than you radiate: ‘I hear you. You are safe with me’.

That is how you really help them. So relax your body, so they feel that you want to be here with them, right now, in this room. Don’t keep all your muscles tense. Otherwise you look like you could run away from the situation at any moment.

Clear your ‘whiteboard’

Only when you are aware of your own thoughts, you are able to clear your ‘whiteboard’. Wipe away all the hundreds of thoughts you have in your head. If you don’t, the other person will see that you are busy thinking of an answer, but that you are not really listening and not attentively present to this person. How would that feel when they are probably at their most vulnerable and afraid of being judged? How would it feel for them if you were really attentive? That would be a blessing.

Opening the conversation

Make eye contact and have a neutral friendly facial expression (more neutral than the woman in the photo accompanying this article!), so that the person is not distracted by the thought: “My manager looks so worried, can I put my worries with him/her?”. “My manager looks like this is a happy topic, it is not.”

“Thank you for coming. How can I help you? I am here to listen to you, without interrupting, free of judgements” would be a wonderful start to your conversation. It makes you trustworthy and the situation safe.

Wait and use Silence with a capital W and S

With the question “how can I help you?” you have started the thinking process of the other person. He or she needs time to feel what they are really feeling (and that is a lot!!). They need time to have the courage and find the words to express themselves.

When they start talking and finish their sentences, wait and use silences. Thousands of thoughts fill your head, but wipe them out. The other person is still processing. Breathe out, relax your body and practice being silent. You will probably see from their face if they are still thinking or feeling. Then they are not yet ‘with you’. When they look into your eyes again, you wait. You practice more silence with a neutral friendly expression, because you really want to know what they have to say next. You really want to give them a safe space to express how worried, scared, indignant or angry they are and that needs time.

Don’t analyze

You don’t have to analyze in your head or out loud what they just said. Saying that these things do happen in a male-female environment can seem like saying, “It’s just part of life”. It feels like you are undermining what the other person is going through. You don’t want that. Let’s not underestimate the potential fears and the need for vigilance. Men may underestimate that women may feel unsafe, because in those kinds of situations they are very aware that when it comes down to it, men are often physically stronger than they are. Or when it is a manager, they may not be believed. So as a woman you may feel that you have to be smarter and deal with things like “where is he? In the hall. Then I’ll just wait with going to the copier”. “I should avoid having a meeting with him only. If I do, I better leave the door open so people can hear and see us”. “I should avoid walking to my car alone. Always with someone else”. “I feel so sorry for his wife. She seems so kind.”. This can hardly be called a relaxed work situation. A comment about that this happens in a male-female environment can then be interpreted as, “Come on, it’s not that bad to live with that tension and be in flight mode all the time. It is just part of life. He is not really going to harass you”.

You don’t have to understand every detail in the beginning, so please don’t analyze and don’t ask follow-up questions immediately. If you ask questions too soon, you interrupt them. The brain can feel that as an attack and is not free to think for itself. When you notice that they are with you and you see that they have finished talking, you can ask them the following question.

The appropriate question would be: “what more do you think, feel or want to say?”

Then again Wait, Silence, Listen and Neutral Friendly Facial Expression. You may want to ask the same questions a few times to hear what is coming next. Don’t worry that this will feel uncomfortable for them. They are in a process, moving on to the next thought and context, so the same question ‘what do you think, feel or want to say?’ will be new and fresh to them. You will help them to think deeply and process. You can even explain that you are repeating the same question, not because you are looking for the right answer, but because you want to generate their thinking.

Acknowledge their courage and openness

Suppose you have asked this question a few times and the person says that he or she has said everything he or she wanted to say, then you can acknowledge his or her courage and openness. “I appreciate your courage and openness. Thank you for sharing”.

If the person has not told you what they expect from you, ask him or her “Now that you’ve told me your experiences, please tell me, how can I help you further? What is it that you need most right now?” Then Wait, Silence, Listen and Neutral Friendly Facial Expression.

Finally, you can go to the solution mode

At the beginning of the conversation, you don’t have to solve things right away. At the end or after the conversation, it is appropriate to take action if necessary. It may be that the person is relieved now that she or he has finally been able to share this and that this is enough for now. She or he may want to go home and process it more or want to make an official complaint. If you are not sure how this works, make sure you find out and get back to them today or tomorrow and tell them. Make a new appointment to discuss this further and see how she or he is doing. You want them to feel that you are taking this and them seriously.

Listening for Leaders – Empathetic leadership

People are able to use their full potential when they feel safe, heard, seen and valued. As a company and as a leader, you want to create these conditions for them. Let them know you are there for them. This is Listening for Leaders. This is compassionate and empathetic leadership.

What do you think now? What are your thoughts?

This is something you have to practise; using silences, repeating the question, not interrupting, not giving any advice, etc. I am here to think with you, to practice, to listen or to be your sounding board. I am a coach and practitioner of listening. I like to help others feel safe, think deeply and express themselves. I am an expert on how to use your breathing to become calm. I am also a business anthropologist who works with people from different cultures. If you like you can download your free document to improve your listening.