How To Deliver A Difficult Ethical Message


Figure 1. The dead elephant.

A reader, T., wrote in to explain that she had recently suffered through a situation which resulted in her leaving the practice of a health professional. As in, “Thank you very much, your services will no longer be required.” She asked,

“To make a long story short, would you consider a post on the topic of ‘how to deliver an unpleasant ethical message?'”

Unethical behavior, if not confronted, behaves like a dead elephant. Some of us line up in front smiling, others cross their arms, uncomfortable, in distress.

How to speak up about the elephant? How do High WASPs do it? It’s not our strong point, frankly. Crimes against humanity, the behemoths of bad ethics, we approach like any other culture. Sometimes courageous, sometimes fearful, sometimes guilty as charged. We try to do good. We sometimes fail.

Smaller ethical mistakes, made unknowingly, we try to forgive. We sometimes fail.

It’s the middle ground where the High WASP culture lets us down. We are far more easily shamed than most. So overturned, in fact, by social gaffes that I cannot offer advice in this situation, cannot deconstruct as usual, without matrices. Diagrams, we hope, can fight off shame.

Feel free to snort with laughter.

Figure 2. Impact of Emotional State On Conveying An Unpleasant Ethical Message, Mapped Against Severity of Ethical Misconduct.

If you’ve finished laughing, we can discuss. Not finished? I’ll wait.

Right then. 3 of the quadrants in the matrix pose no ‘How To’ dilemmas.

  1. Heroic Resistance. When we need to be heroes, whether we are up to the task or not, we know what it would take.
  2. Sociopath. Those who feel nothing at horrors of humanity must be sociopaths. I don’t think sociopaths think about ‘how to.’
  3. Zen. When other people’s small mistakes annoy us a just little bit, we have learned to breathe deeply and move on.

But when we have strong feelings about what we believe is unethical but non-criminal behavior, that’s tougher. It’s difficult to balance the discomfort of embarrassment against the righteous pleasure of calling out mid-level bad behavior. At least for us. If you are freer I salute you.

So. You notice that you are angry and concerned about someone’s unethical behavior. What now?

The [Reformed] High WASP Guide To Difficult Conversations

  1. Examine the offending behavior. Make sure you have the facts. No point using up righteousness points over inaccuracies.
  2. Stand still. Take a breath. Examine your own feelings. Are you purely righteous? Or is your distress motivated more by your own emotional needs?
  3. Realize that you’re human. Nobody, except perhaps the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, or Thich Nhat Hanh, feels distress over pure right and wrong alone. Our internal landscape engages. Welcome to humanity.
  4. Review your feelings. Even after you understand your own emotional engagement, do you still feel the person’s behavior is unethical? That wrong has in fact been done? You are ready to speak. You will feel quite strong and calm.
  5. Put your feelings aside. They will be there when you come back.
  6. Do not send an email, text, or Twitter message. The usual rules of courtesy apply. Call the offender, or even better, make an appointment to see them in person.
  7. Preview your message. “So-and-so, I need to speak with you about a difficult subject.” Your politeness here prevents the kinds of thrashing common when people feel blindsided.
  8. Deliver your message. Carefully, simply, articulately, and as briefly as possible.
  9. Wait. Listen. Repeat. You are not here to argue.
  10. If you hear new facts that indicate you were wrong, apologize sincerely. You haven’t done anything that can’t be repaired. You had bad information. It happens.
  11. If you hear no new facts, listen, tell the offender you have heard what they say, and repeat your message. At a certain point you will know if they are going to admit their wrongdoing or not.
  12. Before you are done, you will need to decide what reparations will satisfy you. Those who have done wrong must make it right, one way or another. Do you require only that they acknowledge? Apologize? Offer compensation? Submit to punishment? In this too, clarity is your friend. Your good friend.
  13. Go home. The world is probably now a little bit better place.

This is all more easily said than done, you might reply. You would be right. One has to be willing to step back and look at oneself. This is not easy. Hence the entire cadre of therapists. But it’s not impossible, especially as one ages.

Sometimes you notice unethical behavior in a person who has power over you, an employer, an official, a parent. The problem of power imbalance is more tenacious. Backing down from fear is much different than backing down from embarrassment. Far easier to forgive.

The photo above is from T.’s family archives. She grew up in British Colonial Africa. The picture was taken in Kenya. Colonialism is the epitome of ethical issues, complete with a terrible power imbalance. I can only imagine how I would have felt as a child in that environment, although I would not want to assume anything about T. The elephant as metaphor.

I’m talking to myself here. Diagramming for myself what I haven’t always done well. Using abstract constructs to repair felt flaws. While mild shame has probably improved my taste in clothing, its more bitter cousin has left other, longer, traces.

High WASPs have historically believed that what remains unsaid means more than what gets said. This should have changed, in 2010. I don’t know if all the talking that goes on night and day now, across the electronic universe, is helping with shame, and the resultant ignoring of bad guys. I hope so.

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27 Comments

  • 09/23/10
    8:20 am

    Reply

    Belle de Ville said...

    Did you come up with that matrix? It's like something from BCG.
    Also, I thought that shame was dead in our society. Hopefully, it is still alive because it can serve a practical function of preventing negative behavior.

  • 09/23/10
    8:24 am

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    Marcela said...

    Great post. I am printing and saving it for reading it again. Thank you for writing it.

  • 09/23/10
    8:47 am

    Reply

    Tabitha said...

    You are so wonderfully wise Lisa, I am in the throes of trying to get a employer to pay me for 6 months work that I did last year, I have taken her to court twice and won but both times she has then gone on to change the name of the company so I have been unable to to gain any recompense, I don't know whether to let it go or keep up the good fight or indeed start ranting about the legal system.

    I agree with Belle, for so many shame is indeed dead.

  • 09/23/10
    8:49 am

    Reply

    The Preppy Princess said...

    Absolutely. Brilliant. All of it, from the matrix to the points made in the Guide. It could (and should once the lawyers bless it) go in a number of HR manuals. And I say this as someone who has had a not insignificant amount of special training in this field.

    When the Princess is global will you come be our Ethics and Style Pooh-bah?
    tp

  • 09/23/10
    9:53 am

    Reply

    Anonymous said...

    I was taught to be quiet and hold my tongue…but my mother always confronted a situation. As I have aged, I find expressing myself has given me more peace…as my mother probably discovered. Neighbors, superiors, husband seem to repond to a stated viewpoint more easily than silent resentment… so the embarrassment is short lived for me these days.

  • 09/23/10
    10:06 am

    Reply

    Miss Janey said...

    Excellent advice.

  • 09/23/10
    10:33 am

    Reply

    DocP said...

    Excellent! My only addition would be the suggestion that pleading confusion often goes a long way toward disarming any embarassment. As in, "I'm a bit confused. X seems to be the case, but if that were true, it would be totally unethical behavior. Would you explain?"

  • 09/23/10
    11:41 am

    Reply

    Duchesse said...

    Overall, agree. Re step 5, most of us cannot-nor do I think we should- excise feelings from raising an issue, but it is so WASP! There is a way to include feelings in the conversation without shaming or blaming; I recommend "Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most" by Stone, Patton and Heen.

    Also, I endorse Doc P's approach. I try to remind myself that what I consider "unethical" may not be so to the other person. Or, if the behaviour is widely considered so, calling it "unethical" in the opening words will likely call up every defense the person confronted can muster.

    A book on this subject that is transformative: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life",by Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg.

  • 09/23/10
    12:28 pm

    Reply

    LPC said...

    Belle – It is like something from the Boston Consulting Group, exactly. I made it up myself. Because the risks of getting this wrong scared me.

    Marcela – Thank you in return.

    Tabitha – Thank you. In your case, what can you do but decide how much the fight is worth to you. I am sorry you have had to deal with that kind of person.

    TPP – But of course, it would be my honor:). Thank you. I too thought, as I wrote, how much this converged with my management training. This was the part of corporate life that I liked, rising above pettiness and focusing on the real priorities.

  • 09/23/10
    12:40 pm

    Reply

    LPC said...

    Anonymous – A stated viewpoint, exactly. And I think you are right, it feels strong and calming to everyone involved, in a way.

    Miss Janey – Thank you.

    DocP – I have trouble carrying off that kind of strategy because I know in my heart that I'm not confused, and when I know something in my heart it tends to find its way out. If you have the sang froid, I agree.

    Duchesse – Well, yes, it is so WASP.

    But I have to disagree with your comment about excising feelings. Or perhaps I was confusing. I'm not saying one has to excise feelings, only that one should put them aside. Feed them, keep them happy, tell them they have every right to exist and you will take care of them. I have found that I can run two threads. That I can focus on communicating a message based on a belief, and still be aware of my feelings separately. As long as I do the pre-flight check, of course.

    If someone wants to know how I feel, if it matters to them or to the situation under discussion, at that point I can communicate them as required. They may or may not be germane.

    It's true that overt anger isn't one of my big issues. Perhaps if I were more innately angry I'd see things differently. As it is, I'm far more prone to anxiety, sneakiness, and blurting, as flaws.

  • 09/23/10
    2:38 pm

    Reply

    RoseAG said...

    Hummm. I sort of get what you're talking about, but being a bit simple-minded I still have confusion.

    As a member of a class of citizens with resources/choices I'm inclined to blast out at step 6 – sorry, we've changed our minds, won't be needing this anymore, etc….

    For example, the accountant we interviewed who was going to set up multiple coporations and put our children on the payroll with all the attendant write-offs.

    Very wrong, and not a bit tempting as we know we have the type of resources that would cause such a maneuver to be noticed by authorities.

    But that doesn't do much for societal injustice of the type suggested by the colonial elephant. So we didn't mention this to the business associate who had recommended the accountant in the first place. Nor did we inquire whether he'd sucumbed to this misguided scheme.

    I'd say there is ample topic here for you to expand into another post, maybe one with more concrete examples?

  • 09/23/10
    3:49 pm

    Reply

    Susan Tiner said...

    This is fascinating. I like what DocP said and second RoseAG's request for some examples.

    How does one judge ethical severity in the first place. Your guide sounds right if the behavior was private — what occurred happened privately between two individuals and affected only those individuals — and the deed was something between a pure mistake up to maybe about half way to the right. It seems to me that from the half way point to 100% sin it's something fairly serious. The privacy concern may or may not apply in this case even if the deed occurred privately between two individuals but I think it certainly doesn't apply if the behavior may harm the public, e.g., a mortgage broker deliberately selling inferior products to increase fees.

  • 09/23/10
    4:57 pm

    Reply

    Anonymous said...

    I am so glad you wrote about this – something that is very difficult for me and now I have this handy step-by-step guide! I really appreciate the clarity and succintness. Thank you, I have the feeling this will save me much heartache in the future.

  • 09/23/10
    7:04 pm

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    fourth said...

    LPC. Thank you for this thoughtful and brilliant inquiry into a situation which confronts most people.

    Parents generally try to teach children obedience. Ironically, the discipline of compliance does not serve adults well. Rather, the strong-willed child seems better equipped for an assertive adulthood, and therefore perhaps would correct another's ethical breach without much ado.

    As a strong-willed child myself, my responses to situations are sometimes strong. So, your guide will be my saving grace. I echo your other reader who invited you to be our Grand Poo Bah of Etiquette and Style. Thanks LPC.
    The Fourth Canary.

  • 09/23/10
    8:09 pm

    Reply

    hostess of the humble bungalow said...

    We've all been in dodgy situations and sometimes we bumble things, say it badly, but I think if we are honest and truly care, we can dig ourselves out of the mire…
    your insight here is very valuable..

    I have recently been exposed to a co-worker who has absolutely no social skills and no filters and blurts anything that comes to his mind…it has become very unpleasant for all the faculty members…I have diagnosed him as suffering from Aspergers syndrome…while they are raking him over the coals I am using my training to make the best of a difficult situation…empathy, compassion and dignity. A win win…
    I ask…how would you handle this?

  • 09/23/10
    8:34 pm

    Reply

    La Belette Rouge said...

    My graduate thesis focused a lot on shame( and clothing) and I can tell you that shame is an affect which means it is a body experience and not a feeling. Affects are automatic. Shame exists in our biology. I could go on and on but this is a blog and not a book.
    I LOVE your matrix and thoughtful negotiation through difficult terrain.

  • 09/23/10
    9:56 pm

    Reply

    Ash said...

    i love that diagram! lol

    ~ash's mum

  • 09/24/10
    9:44 am

    Reply

    Charlotte said...

    Oh dear. I require the right amount of gin to get to heroic resistance but not so much that we wade into certain embarrassment territory. There is also a requisite amount of breathing into a paper bag. So, yes, still very deep in the trenches of privileged anxiety and shame on this end.

    I cannot tell you how much I love that you made a matrix, though.

  • 09/24/10
    10:45 am

    Reply

    SPLENDEROSA said...

    I agree with Rose; I really cannot understand what the issue is because you are so painstakingly polite. :) I am suffering terribly with my son's wife, who has alienated everyone in our family. Son doesn't see it. I love your presentation.

  • 09/24/10
    1:54 pm

    Reply

    DJ said...

    "While mild shame has probably improved my taste in clothing, its more bitter cousin has left other, longer, traces."

    This is so, very true.

  • 09/24/10
    8:40 pm

    Reply

    Sydney Shop Girl said...

    Your wisdom is much appreciated, LPC.

    I will run through your checklist the next time I get myself into a frenzy about how 'other people are making MY life so difficult'.

    SSG xxx

  • 09/25/10
    2:56 am

    Reply

    Buckeroomama said...

    I've always loved your matrices. :)

    Being able to call someone out for a perceived wrong takes not just courage, but tact. To find the balance between #1 and #3 would be ideal.

  • 09/25/10
    3:05 am

    Reply

    pve design said...

    My dear husband just completed our taxes and I always feel akin to being the elephant in the room as he inspects every nook and cranny.
    The days of earning a simple stipend seems so easy but after reading your post, maybe then again, not. All the "excised feelings" being squelched or drowned by mediocrity and big mass marketers and motherhood. Indeed, in the end it is about finding a place to call one's home and living a life of some sort of normalcy in the midst of "crooks and thieves" as my father-in-law likes to spout off about.

  • 09/25/10
    8:36 am

    Reply

    LPC said...

    RoseAG – You sound as though you have great confidence in your own authority. That is a great thing. I believe one of the problems that can come from growing up in privilege is when one doesn't get that sense of confidence, assuming everything comes from the family and not one's abilities. The other thing is that in the situation I was discussing, the bad behavior had already occurred, so had to be dealt with. You are right. This is material for many, many posts.

    Susan – You are right. I was thinking about a situation that is between 2 people, not one where whistle-blowing is required for a great scope of behavior.

    Anon – You are very welcome. Why this is so difficult for some of us and so much easier for others is very interesting to me.

    fourth – Thank you so much. I am sure this has much to do with upbringing. I too was strong-willed, so my default would have been to either blurt or do nothing. I have tried in adulthood to come to a considered middle ground.

    Hostess – I think it would all depend on whether the person brings more value than trouble to the organization. If he brings value, you all need to collaborate on finding a system of agreed behavior that supports everyone there. Thank you.

  • 09/25/10
    8:40 am

    Reply

    LPC said...

    La Belette – Fascinating. I would love to read more of what you know about shame. Thank you. Matrices 'R Us:).

    Ash – Thank you so much.

    Charlotte – Ah. You are correct. I should have overlaid a gin curve onto the matrix.

    Splenderosa – I believe those who don't suffer from shame in this way really think we who do are nuts:). It's a very refreshing perspective.

    DJ – I can now imagine a map, of the traces.

    SSG – Oh if any frenzy is reduced at all my matrix was not a silly effort:).

    Buckeroo – :). Exactly. Courage and tact. Which are tough to come by simultaneously.

    pve – It is about finding a home, in both the philosophical and physical worlds.

  • 09/25/10
    5:48 pm

    Reply

    Pam said...

    I loved this, Lisa; both your post and the comments thus far. Your analysis fits in with many psychological theories I know, yet is also entirely your own, and that delights me. (Honestly – I love this stuff!)

    I've spent a lot of years working to rid myself of shame, though perhaps Belette's work might convince me that such a thing is not possible – maybe I've been working on transcending rather than expunging? Either way, I'd love to know more about her research.

    I also echo Duchesse's recommendation of Marshall Rosenberg's work. I've been trained in his approach to nonviolent communication by someone who was trained by him in person, and I found his approach straightforward (but not necessarily easy) and transformational.

    I can honestly use Doc P's advice in practice, as I often am genuinely confused. Not in the sense of thinking I'm wrong, but in the sense of feeling puzzled when two and two look like they're adding up to five. I find it more helpful to ask the other person to show me what I've misunderstood, because it's always possible that (however well I've checked my facts) there's something I've missed. I find that if I'm willing to be wrong, it can open the way for the other person to be willing to be wrong. Of course, this is only doable if my confusion is genuine… and sometimes my route into that is via fascination. If I can't get myself to the point of genuine confusion I often choose not to confront, because if I'm not at least willing to be shown where I've misunderstood the situation, I'm unlikely to make much progress with that person.

    Gah, now I've gushed on at length and appear to have forgotten that a simple thank you will suffice. I hope you'll forgive my enthusiasm and take the thank you as read.

    I also fervently hope that this model, and this advice, will make it into your book….

  • 09/29/10
    3:51 am

    Reply

    Francine Gardner said...

    Very well said. being married into high a high WASP family, I had a talk from my mother in law how to properly express my feelings, pleasure and displeasure…being a highly emotional person, this was unknown territory, but I have to say that these really class in handling any situation with grace.
    I was going to my physician for a refill prescription when i saw his building being picketed by rather non attractive people with signs such as "rapist" The driveway was blocked, police cars were arriving. i have to say i was very nervous but wanted to give the physician benefit of the doubt. i was insulted as I crossed the picket line. I met with my physician, spoke directly with him and was satisfied with his answers an felt really bad that his reputation was being destroyed overnight…
    read in the papers a few weeks later, that the whole incident was a complete blackmail fraud. I felt I owed him the benefit of the doubt, had to face an embarrassing moment but dealt with it rather than avoid it.It seemed that was the right thing to do. I have to thank my mother in law and her advice over the years on how to respect people and deal with unpleasant situation in a cool upfront manner

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