Clearing the Dishes for Healthy and Successful Co-ops
Interpersonal challenges are inevitable in the workplace, and this can be especially true in co-operatives where emotional and financial investment is typically higher than in traditionally structured organizations. While they are inevitable, interpersonal issues do not need to cause suffering and impede the efforts of a co-operative. It is possible to address existing issues and learn strategies to effectively deal with future difficulties as they arise.
The metaphor I use for this work is clearing the dishes.
Here’s the image: Two colleagues are seated across from one another at a table (I always imagine it with a red and white checkered tablecloth). A hurtful/upsetting comment or action is represented as a food-smeared, post-meal plate that sits on the table between them. Saying something in the moment to express the hurt, anger, or upset begins a process in which the metaphorical plate may be cleared from the table, but most people avoid conflict and say nothing. Instead of addressing the issue directly, there is a tendency to deny, retreat, gossip, etc., behaviours that may not only compromise the effectiveness of a team, but also cause significant suffering.
If nothing is said — if the dish is not cleared — it sits on the table until the next interaction. As the colleagues begin their next conversation, that metaphorical plate is there between them. Additional comments, actions, or behaviours that are interpreted as hurtful or upsetting are dishes that get stacked on top of the first one. Over time, uncleared dishes accumulate. Eventually, it becomes impossible to see the person or people across the table because there are so many festering dishes. The view becomes distorted: One sees only the stack of hurts and annoyances.
These accumulated slights and hurts can lead to toxicity in the workplace, to absenteeism, and even, ultimately, resignations. In workplace day-to-day, accumulated dishes impede the flow of information and ideas that are necessary for a co-op’s overall health and aliveness — for its effectiveness and ultimately, success.
For these reasons, dealing with conflicts and creating a clearing culture are fundamental aspects of business strategy.
In some cases, the dishes are piled so high that is might be necessary to get outside support to clear and reset the table, but it is possible to create a clearing culture in your organization to remove recent dishes and prevent future accumulation. Here’s how you can do it:
The first step is to agree to create a clearing culture in your organization. One of the best agreements you can have in the workplace (for productivity, creativity, positive workplace culture, and health and wellness) is to clear issues out as they arise. This means that you go directly to the person with whom you have had an issue and clear it with them as soon as possible rather than hold on to it, or gossip. With this agreement in place, individuals can use the following steps to clear:
1. Share your intention to clear and invite the other person to clear.
It is important that this is not imposed on anyone. If you decide to clear, share that intention with the person who upset you and ask their permission to talk about it. ‘I’d like to clear something with you. Is that ok with you?’. If you have made agreements about a clearing culture in your organization, the answer will hopefully be ‘yes’.
2. Set a time to clear.
If the other person is willing to talk, set a time that works for both of you either in that moment, or sometime later that day or the next. Don’t delay.
3. Have some self-compassion and pause to become present.
When you are getting ready to begin, take a few deep breaths and feel your feet on the floor. It takes courage to have a clearing conversation. In the long term, clearing will make things easier for both of you (as well as your co-workers and your spouse/personal support system) but in the moment, it can feel extremely uncomfortable. Any or all of the fight or flight responses might be present: racing heart, rapid breathing, sweaty hands, nervous tummy, tight jaw, etc. These are are normal parts of the process. Acknowledge that you are doing a difficult, but important thing. Breathe slowly into your belly for a moment or two and feel the soles of your feet connected to the floor beneath you to become present.
4. Practice respectful body language for listening.
Practice what you know about respectful body language for listening, especially making and maintaining eye contact.
5. Use I-statements to express your specific concern.
Use I statements about how you feel/felt, name the behaviour or issue, and say when it occurred. For example, ‘I felt embarrassed and angry [how you felt] when you interrupted me in our meeting [the behaviour or issue] earlier today [when it occurred].’ It is important that you keep your comments about you only. There is nothing that derails a clearing faster than the following: ‘We all think that you… ‘.
Attend to one, current situation. Do not generalize. Notice how different it is to say, ‘You are always so disrespectful’ as opposed to, ‘I felt embarrassed and angry when you interrupted me in our meeting earlier today’. There is no room for movement in the former. The person would likely feel defensive and say that they are not disrespectful at which point, the conversation would erode or stall. In contrast, expressing your feeling about a singular situation is specific, concrete, and something that is manageable to discuss.
6. Practice active listening.
After you make your ‘I’ statement about the issue and how you felt, practice active listening, which is, in essence, about making a conscious effort to hear and understand the other person or people. You have likely done training on active listening before, but here is a quick refresher of the four steps:
· First, pay attention. Set an intention to be present and focus on what the person is saying.
· Second, demonstrate you are listening with your body language and facial expression.
· Third, reflect back what you hear (paraphrase or ask questions) to confirm or clarify your understanding and to support the speaker in feeling heard. ‘So, what I hear you are saying is that you…’.
· Finally, defer judgment. It isn’t easy to listen and defer judgment. It’s common for us humans to immediately judge and even to begin composing our response as we are listening. Ultimately, though, this means that we are only partially listening to the other: we are mostly listening to ourselves! See if you can notice when you are judging or composing a response while the other person is speaking and then bring yourself back to focus on the words they are saying.
7. Continue until you reach understanding and form agreements, or agree to revisit later.
Continue using ‘I’ statements and active listening in order to come to understanding. ‘I am sorry. I did not mean to interrupt you.’ Then, set agreements for the future. ‘Can you commit to making an effort to be more aware and to not interrupt me in the future, especially at team meetings?’.
If you can’t clear the issue yourselves, find a mutually agreeable, neutral person to help you (a colleague or supervisor) and use the same process with their support.
This dish clearing process outlined in this short article is an important tool for working teams because misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and other issues happen all the time simply as part of being human. The goal is not to prevent dishes from landing on the table, but to create a culture in which those dishes are cleared as a normal part of day-to-day operations.
Clearing takes courage, especially as you get started, but the rewards for individual and organizational health, effectiveness, and success are well worth the discomfort.
About Jen Mason
I am passionate about supporting learning and positive change in groups of all kinds. Blending over 20 years of experience as an educator and process designer with insights from my PhD research about the role of listening in building resilience in complex, adaptive systems, I work with a sense of both purpose and playfulness. My goal is support effective communication and learning, which will enable groups to achieve their goals and thrive. My service offerings include team restoration (conflict resolution) support, listening and perspective-taking workshops, and clearing and communication workshops. In addition to my own consulting business, I also co-designed and co-facilitate the Systems View Lab with Fritjof Capra — a leadership workshop on systems thinking for executive teams. I have a PhD in Sustainability Education and an MA in Education from Prescott College, as well as a BEd and a BA in Political Science from Queen’s University. www.jenmasonconsulting.ca firstname.lastname@example.org