Four women looking down
How to Talk to the Person Who Disrespected You at Work
Overview

It shouldn’t be your responsibility to facilitate a conversation with someone who’s been disrespectful to you. It’s their responsibility not to disrespect you. Yet – as long as we live in a world where disrespect and harassment still happen – in many cases, a direct conversation, on your own terms, is an important first step to take back your power and create healing and closure.

If you decide a direct conversation is the right path for you, read on for a guide on how to do it.

Develop a Support Team

A support team is crucial in this process. Can you identify at least one person in your personal life who’s got your back (perhaps your friend, family, or partner)? Can you identify at least one person in your work life who can support you, and even be willing to attend important discussions with you?

What does a support team do?

A good personal support team will be able to:

1. Listen to your story, without judging you or telling you “what you should have done” (remember, there’s no perfect response to disrespect that you never asked for in the first place).

2. Help you think through what you’d like to say to the person who disrespected you.

3. Practice the conversation with you (as awkward as role play can feel, it really helps! Getting embodied makes a difference.)

4. Check in on you and give you the emotional support you need throughout this process.

 

A good work support team will be able to:

1. Listen to your story, without judging you or telling you “what you should have done.”

2. Attend the conversation with you. They need not come in ready to say anything in particular – your voice and your terms are primary in this conversation. But they can interject at a point where you struggle and want their support.

3. Document in writing the discussion points, both during and after the conversation.

4. Be willing to participate in an investigation if you decide to elevate your concern.

Prepare What You Want to Say

It can help to take some time to lay out in writing what you want to say. Conversations like this are most effective when you enter them in a calm, collected, and controlled manner. For most of us, that requires preparation.

Grab a piece of paper or open up a new document on your computer. If you’re looking for a place to start, try answering these questions first:

1. What happened?

It helps to include details such as location, time, and people who were present. You might try looking through old emails, your calendar, etc., to get confident about the details of your story.

2. How did it make you feel?

Be honest and explicit. Your forthrightness will hopefully enable the other person to see you in your full humanity and truly realize the impact of their mistake.

3. What would you like to see happen now? Do you want:

The behavior to stop? Mediation? For one of you to be transferred to a new department? An apology? A donation to a nonprofit?

 

Now, take a moment to reflect on how you’re feeling about the conversation. Think about the following questions to help you prepare some more:

1. What are you most worried about when it comes to this conversation? What is the worst possible scenario for you?

2. What do you hope this conversation will produce? What is the best possible scenario for you?

3. What is the most realistic outcome? How would you feel about this outcome?

4. Such conversations might leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed. What do you want to tell the most vulnerable part of yourself right now?

Practice

We strongly recommend practicing with your personal support team. Here is a suggested structure you can use for this conversation:

1. Tell the person you’d like to talk with them about something that happened. Set a date and time. You might also let them know this conversation may be difficult for both of you. (This gives them a chance to prepare for what’s next and recognize this is hard for you, too).

2. Describe what happened in detail. Stick to the facts. When you’re done, ask them, “Do you remember this?” Give them the opportunity to contribute any details to the story. If they say something you disagree with, you might say, “That’s not how I remember it” – but it likely won’t help to engage them in a back-and-forth at this point, as that may distract from your goals in the conversation.

3. Tell them how it made you feel. It can be hard to share your feelings with someone who just hurt you. It’s hard to be vulnerable. But it’s important that they know the impact of their actions. You are also modeling vulnerability, as you ask them to be vulnerable enough to admit they did wrong and caused harm.

4. Tell them what you want to happen next. Feel empowered to ask for what you need here. Don’t expect them to volunteer anything that you don’t ask for (including an apology).

5. Make a plan together to continue the conversation. At this point, there’s a chance they are in a spiral of shame that could result in any of these outcomes: they’re blaming you (“you’re too sensitive!”), they’re bouncing out of accountability (“but I’m not racist!”), or they’re just being quiet, sullen, and withdrawn. True apologies often take time, and require someone to take the space for reflection and growth so that they can come back with a genuine apology. This step requires a lot of patience and grace from you. It asks you to allow them to hear you, to take time to metabolize what’s been said, and then to return to the conversation. But by setting up a follow-up conversation, you’re also holding them accountable, and remaining in control of the situation.

We suggest practicing with your support team member a few times. The first time, your support person might role-play the “best possible outcome” you outlined in your prep work. They should let you get through what you want to say and build confidence saying it.

The second time, your support person might role-play the “worst possible outcome.” Here, your support person might intentionally try to say things that push your buttons. The purpose of this is to establish for yourself a sense of when you can handle triggers and stay in conversation, and when you need to stop. It’s okay to walk away with this conversation incomplete. You can follow up with another one later, or you can try a different approach for managing this issue. Remember that you’re in charge.

The third time, your support person might role-play the “most realistic outcome.” This likely lands somewhere in the middle of the best and worst outcome. Here, your support person might throw some, but not too many, obstacles in the path of your progress through this conversation. This enables you to practice being thrown off and redirecting the conversation to get back on track.

The Conversation

The big day is here and it’s time to have this conversation. Here are some ideas to help you empower yourself in this moment:

– Wear something professional that you feel confident and comfortable in.

– Get comfortable and grounded. When you sit down in a chair prior to this conversation, do a quick grounding exercise: take a minute to feel your feet on the floor, your butt in the chair, your back on the backrest. Take a deep breath.

– Consider bringing a support item. Some examples include a photo of someone important (to remind you what matters most) or a small, meaningful object (like a crystal).

– Make sure your support team know that today is the day, so that they can be there to support you before, during, and after the conversation.

– Have a post-conversation plan. What are you going to do afterward? Just “going right back to work” after such an intense moment is likely not be the best idea. Even if you only have a few minutes to yourself before getting back to work, can you perhaps: Call a friend? Journal about your feelings? Sit in nature and remind yourself that you are safe?

Regardless of the outcome of the conversation, remember that harassment and disrespect are never your fault, and it’s not your responsibility to have a “perfect response.” You have done everything in your power to address the situation in a healthy way. Now, it is up to the other person to decide if they are willing to show up in this moment with humility, humanity, and a willingness to grow and change for the better.

The Follow-Up Conversation

This conversation is ultimately about accountability. Here is a suggested structure:

1. Thank the other person for meeting with you, and ask them if they had any reflections after your last conversation they would be willing to share. If they try to renegotiate the facts of what happened, don’t fall into the trap of feeling like you must keep retelling the story. Simply say, “That’s not what I remember,” and redirect the conversation toward accountability. If they try to explain away their harmful behavior by claiming good intentions, you might simply tell them, “I appreciate your intentions, but your actions made me feel…[say how you felt].” If they have questions, you can answer them as you feel comfortable – but if the questions are leading ones, such as, “So are you saying I’m not allowed to say what I think?” – then feel empowered to let them know that they are intentionally misrepresenting your concerns to avoid accountability. Then redirect them to the main point of this conversation: to take accountability.

2. Ask the other person if they are able to give you what you asked for in the first conversation (an apology, a transfer to a different department, etc.). If they are unable or unwilling to give you what you asked for, reflect on how that makes you feel and take some time to decide on your next steps. You can file a report with HR, your manager, or a government agency. If the other person is able to give you what you asked for, that’s a great step in the right direction.

Regardless of the outcome and aftermath of the conversation or potential investigation, your healing is important. Healing is difficult whether you stay in this workplace or go to another. If you’re looking for more guidance, try our guides to Defining Workplace Harassment, Responding to Workplace Harassment, or Healing and Getting Closure After Harassment at Work.

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YOU ARE POWERFUL

Remember, everyone can do something. At this time in our history, it is even more important that we show up for one another as active bystanders. Research shows that even a knowing glance can significantly reduce trauma for the person who is targeted. One of the most important things we can do is to let the person who is targeted know, in some way, however big or small, that they are not alone.

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