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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dr. Pegs Prescription

Learning how to handle situations in a hostile environment is important

Dear Dr. Peg,

Some managers on campus are downright nasty bullies.  What can employees, student and otherwise, do to protect themselves from hostile work environments?  How can employees deal with the daily stress and fear from controlling, uncivil and disrespectful supervisors? How do employees manage their own emotions when managers have mood swings? What is the best way to deal with intimidation?

Dear Employee,

The UNM Administrative Policies and Procedures Manual states: “Because a respectful campus environment is a necessary condition for success in teaching and learning, in research and scholarship, in patient care and public service, and in all other aspects of the University’s mission and values, the University is committed to providing a respectful campus, free of bullying in all of its forms.”

If you are being bullied by your boss, you need different expertise than mine. I refer you to the UNM Ombuds/ Dispute Resolution services at 1800 Las Lomas N.E., phone 277-2993. They take situations like yours very seriously and will help you with your problem manager.

That said, I am going to comment on your questions in general, because everyone can relate to the problem of what to do when someone else is being difficult. Whether it is a boss, a coworker, family member, friend or even a stranger, another person’s behavior can be a challenge to our peace of mind.

Maya Angelou, renowned American author and poet, said, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” It sounds too simple to be practical, but I think she’s essentially right. I would add a third option, which is “or leave.”

If you don’t like another person, you can’t change them. The only person you can change is yourself. But sometimes your input can cause a person to change their behavior. If you are in conflict with someone, one option is to go to them and let them know how their behavior affects you and ask them to change it. This really works sometimes.

Another option is suggested by your question about how to protect yourself from a hostile work environment. How would you protect yourself from a hostile natural environment? You don’t try to stop the snow from falling, right? You put on a coat or hoist an umbrella. You separate your vulnerable skin from the freezing damage of the storm.

In a hostile work or social environment, try separating yourself from the person who is behaving badly, because a bully is behaving badly, and they know it, whether they admit it or not. Go into another room, take a bathroom break, or do a work errand. Give yourself and the other person time to cool down.

If it is not possible to literally take some space, do so figuratively. Remember that the person who is ranting in your face is a separate person with their own issues. Their behavior is much more about them than about you, and their view of you does not define you. They are having and creating their own experience and it belongs all to them. They might be having a really bad day, or a bad life. Someone who is being nasty is not a happy person, so try to find a scrap of compassion for them. I am not saying it is okay for anyone to bully you. But it softens your own experience if you can imagine their misery and wish them well.

You could even use your imagination to help create the separation I’m talking about. Picture your tormenter on the other side of the Grand Canyon, waving their arms and silently moving their mouth, too far away for you to hear. Or imagine them beneath their own personal rain cloud, getting soaked while you stand apart in the sun.

Separating yourself will also help you manage your emotions when the other person is on a mood swing. You do not have to ride along. Step back. Get off the swing. Then, do what you need to do to calm yourself.

I am a big fan of the deep breath. Take it slowly and mindfully.

Feel the air moving through your nose or mouth, your chest expanding and relaxing. Bring your attention to your own body and consciously relax tight muscles. Grounding yourself in physical sensation will help you escape that maelstrom in your brain.

Most importantly, remember to take care of yourself, body and soul, whatever that means to you. Eat well, sleep enough, exercise, feed your spirit. This will give you stored reserves for keeping your cool when the other person loses theirs.

If all else fails, you could take separation a solid step further. Sometimes a situation or a person is simply intolerable, and leaving is the best option.

These are general suggestions for anyone in a conflict situation with another person. If anyone feels they are being bullied on this campus, please contact your ombudsman. For staff, the number is 277-2993. For faculty, it is 277-3212. Both services are located at 1800 Las Lomas N.E..

Dr. Peggy Spencer is a physician at Student Health and Counseling. She is also co-author of the book “50 Ways to Leave Your 40s.” Email your questions directly to her at pspencer@unm.edu. All questions will be considered, and all questioners will remain anonymous.