I’m standing outside a pet store after buying treats for my dogs. As I’m leaning over to make sure my wallet is safe and secure, I feel someone bump into me sending the bag on my arm swinging forward. I’m immediately filled with anger at the thought of someone not being careful enough to maintain physical distance and, what’s more, not even bothering to apologize for bumping into me. “Seriously,” I muttered under my breath as I hear someone pivot and walk back towards me. As I look up I can’t help but smile. This reckless passerby is actually a 100-l.b. Bernese mountain dog and holding the leash is a woman wearing a face mask.
“Nandini?”, she says. I immediately recognize the voice. She’s someone I had worked with years ago. We only overlapped for a few weeks. I was new to the office and she was preparing to start grad school in another city. A few months in I heard that she was getting married and decided to send her a quick note to say congrats. From then on we would email and catch up every once in a while.
This one year she came to town to attend a conference. She was doing a Ph.D. and I mentioned that I was planning to follow a similar route. We didn’t have much time to talk, and agreed to go for lunch the next time she was in town. When we met in person nearly a year later I was going through a difficult time at work. I didn’t realize it, but what I was experiencing was workplace bullying by a co-worker. At first, I thought this co-worker simply didn’t like me or suffered from poor communication skills. As time went on I felt more and more isolated, realizing that this was just happening to me and I was the sole target of her taunts and slights.
I arrived at our long-awaited lunch date with the intention of talking about Ph.D. programs and found myself opening up to her about the situation at work. I told her how when I tried to get help I was warned by a manager not to get our supervisor involved in “workplace conflict.” I had never spoken to her about anything so personal and yet, I felt comfortable sharing this with her. It wasn’t only that she listened and empathized with me that meant so much — she believed me. Right away, she just believed me. I didn’t have to offer any backstory or rationalize what I was feeling.
But after our conversation, I felt awkward about how much I had disclosed to her. Our communication had largely fallen off until this fateful meeting with her dog bumping into my grocery bag. I cringed when she brought up how she hadn’t seen me since our lunch. I tried to change the subject by asking her about work and moving back home and her husband and her new dog. Then she brought up the restaurant where we had our lunch date, remarking that they had just recently opened up for dine-in service.
I couldn’t avoid it any longer. “I’m sorry about that time. I didn’t mean to tell you all of that stuff about work,” I managed to get out in one breath. And then she surprised me once again by telling me how she felt helpless hearing what I was going through and how this conversation has impacted her leadership style. As a supervisor, she tries to make sure that everyone feels safe and welcome at work. She has made it a priority to create an environment where people can disclose workplace bullying and harassment without fear of negative repercussions.
Since then, we have met up a couple times to walk our dogs (two meters apart). Well, as much as I can keep my dogs away from hers. I’ve learned from rekindling this friendship that my apprehension about telling her something so personal was not warranted. In fact, this was a professional matter that required thoughtful intervention and support. Everyone’s wellbeing matters even if it boils down to the actions of one bad apple. I realized that sharing my experience with her all those years ago might help others who feel voiceless and disempowered. Finally, being bumped into outside the pet store reminded me to lead off with compassion, even when anger feels like the natural response.
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