What not to say to an employee who’s had cancer
This is the fourth article in a series of Cancer in the Workplace blog posts. And we’ve invited Barbara Babcock back to share more of her hints and tips for line managers. Read on to discover the words and phrases that are best left unsaid. And learn how to deal with disagreement productively when you’re communicating with an employee who’s had cancer.
When an employee who’s had cancer is returning to work, saying the wrong thing is what line managers fear most.
You don’t want to ‘put your foot in it’. Or upset someone who’s already been through a difficult time. And embarrass yourself in the process. But you wonder, ‘What should I say?’ In this post and part 1, I give you hints, tips and guidelines to help you. So you can prepare for a conversation with an employee who’s had cancer. And reduce the chances of ‘putting your foot in it’.
1. Don’t start sentences with ‘At least …’
“At least you’re here now. That’s the most important thing.”
“At least your cancer was caught early.”
“At least you didn’t die.”
Or a variation of ‘at least’, such as:
“It could’ve been so much worse.”
And don’t tell a story of someone they know who’d once been in a similar position. And how the employee is now in a much better way. You may be saying that from a very good place. You’re happy that the person survived their cancer experience. And you’re trying to express that. You may be trying to help them put their experience into the context of a bigger picture.
But “At least ...” and its variants invite a comparison.
This can often minimise and discount the person’s experience. In effect, you’re saying, “Your experience wasn’t that bad” and “Don’t you realise how lucky you are?” The employee who’s returning to work after cancer may have found the experience very difficult and uncertain. For all we know, it might have been the most difficult thing they’ve faced in their life so far. We can get an idea for what someone else is feeling. Especially if we’ve had a similar experience or if we have a well-developed ability to empathise. But if the experience isn’t our own, we don’t own it, and so it’s hard to truly ‘know’ another person’s mind.
When you’re on the receiving end of “At least…“, you can feel judged and ‘less than’. You know how lucky you are. It can feel insensitive to be told something so obvious. It can shut the conversation down. The person on the receiving end may think, “My line manager doesn’t get it.” And then operate from that basis going forward.
It’s easy to see how the things we say can lead to disconnection. Over time, it can lead to distrust or a breakdown in the relationship. Saying, “It’s good to see you” is enough.
2. Watch your use of “… but …”
‘But’ discounts and minimises what comes before it.
“That’s a good idea, but I’m not sure people will be open to working like that.”
“That’s a good idea and I’m not sure people will be open to working like that. Let’s think about how we can approach them with this idea.”
Here’s another hint.
When you use the word ‘and’ in this way, say it like you would any other time. I’ve heard people use ‘and’ in place of ‘but’ and give it so much stress, that ‘and’ felt just like a ‘but’. (Say that last sentence substituting the underlined and with ‘but’ and you’ll see what I mean.)
Don’t start sentences with “At least …” Saying, “It’s good to see you” is enough!
3. Avoid “Don’t you think …?” questions
Questions starting with, ‘Don’t you think…’ are leading questions.
They contain the opinion, wish or want of the speaker couched as a question. Say what you mean instead.
For example, if by saying, “Don’t you think XYZ is possible?’ you’re thinking that XYZ is a viable option, then say that. “I was wondering if XYZ could be an option because of ABC. What are your thoughts?” This helps to maintain an open conversation.
4. Avoid closed questions unless you’re fact checking
You know those open questions starting with ‘what’ and ‘how’? They are your friend. Use them.
5. Instead of squashing disagreement, deal with it productively
Keep in mind that you may need to give permission to the other person to disagree with you.
This will depend on the person you’re speaking to. And if they’re a subordinate or someone who doesn’t willingly give their own views. If a person disagrees with you, avoid rushing in with “But …” and giving reasons why their views aren’t right or won’t work. That can shut down the conversation and foster resentment.
If you don’t agree with the person’s views or suggestions, pause, and genuinely consider it. Discuss the pros and cons with them. If you still don’t agree, explain the reasons why. And include any concerns, doubt and questions you have. Pause again. Ask them if they have any other alternatives. Share your own. Continue discussing the pros and cons of both of your ideas.
This demonstrates an openness on your part to hear the other person and consider their views. On a deeper level, it shows positive regard for them even when you don’t agree with them. This helps conversations remain open. You’re both collaborators in finding the way forward.
Over to you
If you want to know how to stand by employees and their families when they need it most. Or you’re looking to introduce a health and wellbeing benefit that can minimise the workplace impact of cancer on individuals, teams and the business overall, click here to discover how HSC can help.
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About Barbara Babcock
Barbara Babcock supports people living with life-changing health issues to rebuild and renew their lives through coaching and workshops. As an accredited coach, facilitator, adult learning specialist and researcher, her work enables individuals and their families deal with the emotional impact of a serious health issue, navigate the many changes, create their ‘new normality’, and reclaim meaning and purpose in their lives. She also works with charities and support groups, and offers support to organizations to help their employees successfully return to work after a serious health issue. Barbara lives in London and when not coaching you can find her kayaking on the Thames or cooking.