“How do you handle someone who is being obnoxious?”
That was a question put to me recently when I talked to a group having their annual Civility Awareness day at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center at Worcester.
We explored how best to encourage civility – which goes beyond mere politeness. The UMass credo on civility offers these tips:
- “Conduct yourself with integrity, courtesy, and respect toward fellow members of our community.”
- “Hold individuals accountable for their actions.”
- “Promote an environment where individuals feel safe and supported.”
These rules for civility in a workplace are heartening; I’m pleased that an organization has focused on how to upgrade the quality of interactions among everyone who works there, as well as with patients.
People at work in any organization face a panoply of forces that easily overpower the urge to be civil: stress, multi-tasking, too much to do with too little time, or too little support. Stress and distractedness – not meanspiritness – are the most common enemies of civility at work.
Consider what you might call “deep civility”: being fully present and attuned to the other person, empathizing, and preparedness to do what you can for them. This attitude resonates with Martin Buber’s concept of the “I-You” connection, where two people are in rapport. These are the human moments when we feel fully engaged and contacted; these are the moments of personal connection we value the most. And, in the workplace, this is what allows for the chemistry where people can work together at their best, or where customers and clients feel most pleased.
What then, does this take? In Social Intelligence I described the varieties of empathy – cognitive, emotional, and empathic concern. These are prerequisites for the full engagement that allows deep civility. But beyond that, each of us can take responsibility for conducting ourselves so the people we contact feel attuned to. Given the countless distractions we face, this begins with paying full attention. The ingredients of a moment of human connection start with our putting down what we’re doing, stopping our wandering thoughts, and simply paying full attention to the other person.
Now, back to that question about the obnoxious person. Because the social brain makes emotions contagious, the danger comes when we take in the negativity, and fail to metabolize it – when the anger, for instance, stays with us, instead of our recovering from it. In the helping professions, the recipe for burnout begins with someone who constantly deals with others who are fearful, angry, or resentful, and who walks away from those encounters feeling that distress – and can’t recover from it. Over time this builds up to an emotional exhaustion – burnout is the end state.
So particularly among those in the caring professions, the ability to recover from such stress is crucial. Luckily for the people at UMass, they are home to the program in Mindfulness-based stress reduction. This training – which has spread to hundreds of hospitals and clinics – gives people the inner ability to stay calm and attuned, without closing down to other people.
In the emotional intelligence model, self-awareness and managing our emotions well are the keys to self-mastery. Once we stabilize in a positive state, we can become senders of that positivity to others. And that suggests one strategy for dealing with an obnoxious encounter – stay calm and clear, be firm but friendly. Because every interaction is a system, this can have a positive impact on the other person. And even if they do not change how they are acting, we can leave their negativity behind as we go on to the next encounter.
In short, the ability to pass on to others our own positive states suggests a deeper sense of “civility.”