The Power of Being Heard


During my 10 years of practice ownership, there were many opportunities to challenge my leadership abilities. On one such occasion, it turned out that I was more powerful keeping my mouth shut and ears open. Let me tell you what happened…

A string of misunderstandings that eventually led to a harsh confrontation had occurred while two nurses were on a shared holiday in Bali. Now they had returned from their trip and had to face each other at work. The intensity of emotions was obvious. The potential for things to spin further out of control was high…and imminent.

What I knew for sure was that:

  • both parties felt justified in their own perceptions, and their own ‘reality’
  • both parties were ill-inclined to see the other’s perspective
  • not being present for any of the events, I was never going to know the truth of what had occurred

I could have quizzed each party for days and still be no closer to what actually happened. It takes two to tango so there would have been some measure of fault on both sides. Was it up to me to be judge of this fault? No. The issues they had, arose out of social interactions, not due to ill-designed business systems.

So what was my course of action?

I listened to them. I took each team member aside, one-on-one, and asked them for their version. I didn’t interrupt. I didn’t judge. I simply listened with empathy.  I concluded each of these meetings with the same message. I stated that I acknowledged why they were upset and that I had heard and understood them. I assured them that I would not reveal what had been said in these one-on-one meetings. I finished by explaining to each one the fact of the situation; that they must leave the animosity toward each other at the front door, or one or both would need to leave. This was not delivered as a threat, but simply as the only solution if they felt they could not work well together. They both expressed a desire to stay.

It is important to gauge the intensity of upset. Is it reasonable to expect they would accept guidance and settle enough to get through the day without upsetting other team members and possibly contribute to a tense environment for the patient? Put yourself in their shoes, with their understanding. Would you have the capacity in that moment to work well together? (Having a great relationship with your temp-staff agency and previous nurses pays off during such situations, in case you assess the need of sending people in conflict home for the day to feel calmer.) 

I recognised the need to provide these staff members with what to do next. After all, they had been unhappy with each for days and had not reached any resolutions themselves, so it would be unwise to leave them to make the next move with each other. After the one-on-one meetings, I brought them together. I stated clearly that we were going to agree on the following ‘behavioural conditions’:

  1. We are going to FAKE IT UNTIL WE MAKE IT
  2. Look at each other and smile – even if it is forced
  3. When you pass each other in the hall, look at the other in the eye and smile (even a forced smile changes our physiology and we naturally become calmer and more open)
  4. When you are in the steri-room, you MUST scrub each others instruments if they are there
  5. At the end of the day, you are to wash each others floor and wipe down each other’s surgery (the purpose being to re-create that process of accepting each other’s help)
  6. When leaving to go home, seek the other out and, while looking them in the eye, say goodbye and wish them a good evening (make sure you are smiling)
  7. When you arrive to work the following session, seek the other out and say good morning and wish each other an enjoyable day (again, while smiling)

I then checked in with each of them continuously through the day to ensure everyone was sticking to the behavioural conditions. I encouraged levity by being cheerful and lighthearted in my communications with them. “Be the change you wish to see…”.

I assured them that adhering to these conditions was a requirement for working and no-one will assume it means forgiveness and acceptance of what happened. I realised this thought would be a barrier for them in achieving the required behavioural standard, so removed it with this statement. I reassured them that as long as they develop the intention to get past this, a stronger team would be the result.

The result after just a short time – one full day – was a happy working environment. It is interesting to note that much of the angst depleted once I gave them a safe and open space to vent their thoughts and feelings. Remember I never made a judgement call on their behaviour. No-one came out ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The management was in the listening, the acknowledgement of their truth. The next important step was to put in to place firm and absolute boundaries, which took the form of the ‘behavioural conditions’. They didn’t have the chance to try and work with each other while still maintaining their pride and upset. It was important that I provide the acceptable behaviour for them.

What was interesting was the feedback from each of the girls. They were surprised at how quickly they started to genuinely have goodwill towards the other due to at first ‘faking it’.

As with any conflict resolution, making people feel safe, accepted and acknowledged will lower their defensiveness, thereby opening the way to more constructive reactions.

Teams do have ups and downs. Every team is a group of diverse and unique people, so to expect constant harmony will leave you thinking dis-harmony is a failure. It isn’t. Dis-harmony is an opportunity to remind everyone of the working culture and put in to practice conflict resolution skills. Allowing your team the chance to feel discomfort in this space and then overcome it by relying on a strong philosophy of respect for one another is a powerful and lasting experience for all of you.