“I don’t remember a thing about the accident,” Esther* tells me when I first meet up with her. “It took eight stiches to close the wound on my head.”
But that wasn’t the worst of her injuries. Even more life-altering were the fractured bones that have temporarily robbed her of her mobility. “This is what I do now—slowly walk around and around my kitchen with my walker to build up my strength. I like to go, go, go—I’ve always been that way—so now being barely able to walk is hard.”
I had spoken to Esther on the phone a few times in the past, but now I was meeting with her at her workplace—the site of the accident. Esther was being summoned to a meeting with her employer and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), Ontario’s agency for providing compensation to workers in the event of injury, and a no-fault insurance provider for Ontario employers.
WSIB aims to facilitate an early and safe return to work for injured employees, while requiring employers to provide modified work duties that meet the workers’ physical restrictions.
I had been expecting Esther to be angry and bitter. Angry at her workplace for the accident, and perhaps bitter at WSIB for trying to get her back to work so early in her recovery process. These emotional reactions would not have been out of the ordinary, but would have been congruent with the situation. And so I was somewhat taken aback when I met Esther. While she may have privately held these feelings, she certainly hid them well. She greeted residents like old friends, hugged co-workers, and made a point of telling her boss how beautiful she looked that day. All while wincing in pain as she struggled to stand and walk. Any tension that may have existed was almost completely melted away by the time we began the meeting.
This situation reminded me of a podcast I have been listening to called Invisibilia. This podcast, by NPR Radio, explores the invisible forces that shape human behaviour. One of their shows, titled “Flip the Script,” investigates what psychologists call “non-complementary behaviour.”
Most of us respond to a situation with “complementary behaviour.” For example, we respond to coldness with coldness, and to kindness with kindness. It’s easy and natural. My co-worker is in a bad-mood and gives me the cold-shoulder? Well then I’ll give them the silent treatment. And so it goes—an endless feedback loop of negativity
How do we break it? With the potentially awkward and difficult act of behaving in a non-complementary way, like buying lunch for the surly co-worker to flip the negative script.
The podcast looks at amazing real-life results that occur when people respond to negative situations with non-complementary behaviour. The first example is the tale of a dinner party rudely interrupted by a gun-wielding man demanding money. With the situation getting increasingly tense, and little hope left, one of the diners does something extraordinary that changes their fate—she responds with love. You can watch a summary of this remarkable story here.
Flipping the scrip in this manner certainly isn’t a panacea for all conflict, but it can be an incredible to tool to end negative feedback loops. It’s a tool that each of us could use in our workplaces for the better!
Esther, perhaps unconsciously, flipped the script on her return to work meeting. What could have been a tense, unproductive meeting, was transformed into an empathetic and positive encounter by her non-complementary response to a terrible situation.
I left the meeting inspired and grateful for Esther’s unique style. She still has a long road to full recovery, but I believe she has paved that road to be a lot smoother than it could have been.