In Search of Civility: Put the Phone Down and No One Will Get Hurt

Q: When I try to talk with my supervisor about something upsetting me, she keeps checking her phone messages, looking through her notebook and glancing at her watch while I talk. I really do not feel listened to. Maybe I could just ask to speak with her at another time. Maybe I could just keep trying to make my message heard. I’m wondering if it might be helpful to her to share feedback regarding her inattentiveness to my concerns.

A: Wow, I’m surprised your supervisor still wears a watch and uses a notebook! Many people are so completely attached to their smart phones that a watch and a notebook have become redundant. Still, doing any one of the distracting things you describe is more than enough to send the message that there are other things your supervisor would rather be doing than paying attention and listening to you. You have posed your valid concern to the right place. Paying attention and listening are two of the core tools of civil discourse and behavior. Without these vital tools of civility, your experience of not being heard is exactly what often happens. Just an aside: a lot of people who are rebuffed like this are not as considerate and forgiving as you seem to be.

There is never a one-size-fits-all solution to this kind of situation, simply because there are lots of variables to consider. You need to create a decision tree for yourself. Allow me to suggest some questions that reflect some of those variables. Depending on your answers, you’ll know better how to proceed.

  • What is the social climate in your workplace? How rigid is the power differential between supervisor and worker? Is two-way supervisor/worker communication valued?
  • Is there a risk to you if you approach your supervisor, directly or indirectly, about her behavior? Would an anonymous complaint about her behavior stay anonymous?
  • Is your supervisor’s behavior a problem for other workers? Would a team approach be appropriate? Would you be the right person to be the spokesperson?
  • What might be your role in the situation you describe? Do you tend to catch her on the fly with your concerns? Do you tend to bring up issues that are not directly relevant to your work? Are there policies about putting concerns in writing and/or making a formal appointment that you are not following?

I am impressed that you wonder if sharing feedback with your supervisor might be helpful to her. That suggests to me that you care about her, and not just your side of the supervisor/worker relationship. Should you decide to approach her directly, make an appointment and ensure privacy. There is an important caveat to remember: her behavior is problematic, but you are the one with the problem (or else she would be the one writing to me about you!). What’s more, no one likes a literal or figurative finger wagging, no matter how well intentioned it may be. Finger wagging puts people on the defensive (and could put you, the worker, at risk). I suggest using the “one-down,” subordinate approach of making “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Instead of saying, “You have a problem,” say, “I am having a problem.” Continue by naming the problem: “I’m not feeling heard when I try to talk to you about (insert your issue).” Naming the problem is enough to get some dialogue going. WSusan McAninchho knows – without your saying a word, she may connect the dots between how constantly distracted she is by her phone and her failure to pay attention and listen to you. Stay focused on the problem, not the person. We solve problems, we don’t “solve” people! Good luck. I’d love to hear back from you.

Have you witnessed a random act of civility or have a civility question? Let us know about it at [email protected]

Susan McAninch is a retired clinical social worker and psychotherapist.