Do any of these comments resonate with you? “We used to all get along and now everyone is just super sensitive,” “Nobody smiles or even tries to be friendly during our Zoom meetings,” and “Everyone knows our teammate is not paying attention to us when we talk – that’s why she turns off her video and sound when we meet.” These are just a few examples of what we have been hearing in the Ombuds Office lately and although it is unusual for so many visitors to be reaching out in such a short time regarding the same issue, it isn’t all that surprising. This pandemic has lasted longer than anyone expected it would and people are tired. Really tired.  Initially the coronavirus was something new and somewhat intriguing, then people got very sick and many died while millions were sent home to isolate. As a whole, we all tried to handle this unprecedented situation with patience, grace, kindness and understanding. Most people are still trying to behave this way and it’s hard to continually be positive under these circumstances. And did I mention, we’re exhausted? 

So what can we do to improve our communications while recognizing the challenging times we are facing? According to scientist and journalist Shane Snow in the article, “This Remarkable Habit Change How You See ‘Benefit of the Doubt’”, there are two rather simple tweaks we can utilize: (1) Introduce “proactive trust” into the dynamics and (2) move from benefit of the doubt to “being charitable.”

(1) Proactive Trust: Snow suggests that trust begets trust, even with difficult individuals. He offers this diagram to explain this idea: 

Trust Loop

Snow’s diagram is based on the work of Harvard Professor Jeffrey Polzer and his process called the vulnerability loop in which one person takes the first step to trust and in turn trust is reciprocated. Trust is a component necessary for healthy, productive conversations and engagement within teams.

(2) Move from benefit of the doubt to being charitable: Next, individuals can decide to move from benefit of the doubt to being charitable. According to Snow, it may be subtle but it is a powerful change in thinking. “Offering someone the benefit of doubt is deciding that you won’t assume the worst in them. Treating someone charitably is deciding to assume the best in them. This distinction is important. It’s the difference between action and inaction. Being charitable means seeking out the kindest explanations, and starting there when dealing with people—instead of sitting back neutrally and allowing people to prove themselves. (Or worse, treating people as if guilty until proven innocent.)”

Being charitable does not have to be complicated. One way is to ask questions differently. For example, instead of saying nothing or questioning a co-worker’s intentions or worse yet, their integrity, a frustrated teammate might say, “Can you help me understand why you used this term in your presentation?” or “I’m confused with your last comment. Can we dive a little deeper?” The point is to acknowledge the concern and then seek clarity in a kind and productive fashion. Choosing to say nothing could lead to long-term and inaccurate perceptions of a colleague and attacking someone by using a question mark at the end of an aggressive statement may result in unnecessary divisiveness.Respectfully asking the person to explain their choice of words and ideas offers an opportunity to learn more about someone’s thoughts and positions and then move on. 

Proactive trust and being charitable are two tools which may help all of us communicate better during this pandemic and afterwards. Try it during your next Zoom meeting or team gathering. How can you start the trust loop? How can you show you trust someone else? What will you say or do that is truly charitable? Let us know how it goes!

By: Melissa Connell, Ombuds Office Director, University of Colorado Denver|Anschutz