And Then Mike Walked In And Dumped On Me

Yesterday at my place of employment, I was scheduled not to do any workshop, but rather to staff our drop-in Resource Centre. This Centre is exclusively for two groups of people; those on Disability and those on Ontario Works (Welfare, Social Assistance). Essentially it’s a room with 20 computers, 2 fax machines, 2 photocopiers, 4 telephones, literature and 1 staff person to monitor and help anyone who needs it.

In addition to clients using the Resource Centre itself, there are 2 workshop rooms off of the main area I’ve just described, and people in those rooms must pass through the Resource Centre both going into their sessions, and upon leaving for the day, breaks and lunch. So depending on many factors such as the weather, it can be a busy place. Some use our facilities for the purposes they are designed for; job and housing searches, calling Caseworkers and Landlords, photocopying and faxing things to employers and Caseworkers etc. And there are some who use the Centre more as a social hub, where they can get in out of the cold, make some human contact and feel included and welcomed rather than stereotyped and unwanted.

So to set the scene it was a busy morning, and just after returning from a break, I was informed that Mike was looking for me and had just stepped out for a minute. No last name…just Mike with the cane…Kelly would know me when he saw me. Turns out, as soon as Mike did walk in with his cane, he was right and I did know him.

Mike’s brain is sharp as a whistle, but his right leg will never be the same, and he’s had numerous operations over the years to fix it without success. Now on Disability assistance, he no longer is compelled to look for work, and at 56 he could just play out the rest of his life hobbling and shuffling around collecting a monthly cheque to pay rent and buy food, but his brain still functions and he wants to feel useful and do something. Problem is Mike’s back is all messed up too, and he can’t sit for periods without pain, and even riding in a taxi or bus is extremely painful every time a pothole is hit, the vehicle turns or there’s quick starts and stops.

So there were Mike and I seated and obviously he had something on his mind. Not a good day to chat privately and leisurely however. Mike had no sooner started chatting when people started needing various things. Some needed information about them off the computer I could access in front of me, one needed a bus ticket to get home, another needed help at their computer station, ‘just for a sec’. I felt bad I couldn’t give Mike my full attention, and show my concern for whatever he was really on about. You see not everybody walks up and lays things out. Mike is a story-teller, an avoider; he’ll eventually get around to what is really on his mind, but in the interim, I’ve learned to be patient. But this approach means I’ve got to rely on my ability to read between the lines, listen for clues, zero in on what’s important and what is filler. Hard to do though yesterday and have him feel validated.

But Mike was patient. Once we got past his four jokes, the lines of concern appeared on his brow and because I was watching for this, I could see he was moving from fluff to substance. Turns out his living situation for the last six months has been that when the tenant upstairs runs a shower – which would be daily, Mikes kitchen sink would fill up with sewage streaming down from the ceiling. Telling the landlord apparently got him nowhere, and only recently after the problem started anew in his living room area did the landlord take action.

Four different contractors hired by the landlord came in, exposed the ceiling back to the framing and then packed up their tools and left. The problems were so extensive, the wiring so poor, that they didn’t want their names to be associated with all the violations that they saw and the landlord just wanted them to slap on a false ceiling rather than address the problems as it would cost too much. For six months Mike has lived this way, with sewage raining down daily, the stench coming with it, the ceiling in two rooms open, and the in and out of traffic but no progress. And all the while of course, rent is being demanded at full price.

“You can’t live there Mike. You’ve got to get out for your physical and mental health”, I said. But you see Mike thought he was dealing originally with a decent landlord. The first few months he bought in to the landlords tale of making progress and having things done soon. But now the landlord wants Mike out and is threatening eviction. The reason is that for November and December, Mike has refused to pay his rent whatsoever in protest. Apparently he’s been taking photos and writing down the violations he’s learned of.

Mike didn’t actually ask for anything except my time, and he got a smattering of that. At the end of the conversation, we stood and he shook my hand which I grabbed with both of mine. He wished me a merry Christmas and left. He already knows his legal options but yesterday just needed to vent and know somebody was listening. And sometimes it’s not critical to have any of the answers, just be in the seat when someone wants to talk.

The Venting Room

Doesn’t really matter whether you personally work in an office, a factory, a school, a store or any other place you could name, today’s subject applies to your workplace. From time to time, (and hopefully not very often) you’re going to come across some person who is going to really annoy you.

Oh you can be the kind of person who is almost always positive and upbeat, but sooner or later somebody is going to push a button that sets you off. So when you find yourself in a situation where your threshold of tolerance is pretty thin, and you just want to fire back a volley of verbally charged venom whether offensively or defensively, what you say and where you say it is critical.

My suggestion is that you get to know your workplace. Where is that one spot in your daily work life where you can retreat to and vent your frustration, amazement, or even anger and bewilderment? I learned this lesson about 20 years ago now when my job involved visiting numerous schools in rural communities. I entered this one school and was meeting with a school official in the teacher’s lounge. Just prior to the lunch hour, the official turned to me and said, “In a couple of minutes the bell will ring and most of the teachers will come in for their lunch. Please don’t put too much meaning into what you might hear; this is the safe room where they can vent their frustration”. Huh?

Now in my ignorance of this behind-the-scene practice, I asked for some clarification of what they’d just said. Well it seemed that the school staff had come to an understanding that the staff room was to be the one place a teacher could come and just share openly some incident that had occurred in the class that they were frustrated by. They could apparently voice comments like, “Oh that kid, I just wanted to scream!” Now in reality, no teacher was going to actually scream or resort to physical violence etc. however, the staff sometimes needed a place to put a voice to their feelings rather than repress them, and by doing so, they could return to the class with less stress and carry on.

I’ve seen this in other work settings too. I myself have worked in a situation where a fellow co-worker is so frustrated and angry that without some way to release what was building up inside, they might otherwise be in danger of lashing out with a verbal barrage at a client and say things that they would immediately regret having said, and possibly have long term career implications. Rather than have to go into damage control and have some kind of disciplinary hearing, I remember getting my co-worker’s coat and just saying, “Walk with me”.

What I did that day is simply remove the individual from the situation long enough for them to step outside the moment until they could regain their composure and swing that pendulum of emotion back to some sense of balance. It doesn’t matter in a situation like this really what you personally say to your co-worker, but rather that you get them out of a pressure-filled volatile situation and give them the chance to vent and blow off some steam. How long that process takes can be a few minutes up to half an hour. This isn’t a counselling session, so it’s not something you need to have experience in. I think you’ll find that the person who is boiling over will carry most of the conversation.

Even when your workplace doesn’t have a designated room or area for this, it’s not a bad idea to take a few minutes just to remove the person from the source of the person who at the moment is the source of the problem. Now most of us are professional and can keep our emotions in check until lunch time, break time, or the end of the day. However, all of us are human; keeping these frustrations and stressors bottled-up inside will only result in the pressure being jacked up and then in some completely different setting, some trigger could happen that sets off an explosion.

This is why sometimes you might get into some massive argument with a spouse who says or does something that is rather innocent but is similar to what you’ve been experiencing a work for weeks on end, and finally you can’t take it any longer and the cork is out of the bottle and you’re yelling, gesturing, and essentially losing your self-control. While your partner is bewildered at your outburst, you’re only venting all that built-up stuff you’ve been repressing, but your partner is lost to explain your behaviour. Don’t let it get that far.

If you in your workplace know all too well what I’m speaking about and you don’t have some kind of safe area to vent, you might want to talk this over with your Management group and see if there is some merit in creating this space and then go about informing staff of the area. A good idea too is making sure that everyone knows that anything said in that space is only venting and not always exactly what the person really means, or really intends to do. So for example, an overly frustrated salesperson that has been rudely treated by an overly demanding customer for 45 minutes but kept her cool the entire time might retreat to a backroom and say, “Ugh! I could kill that woman!”, but there really isn’t any point in over-reacting and placing a call to 911 for the Police.

By releasing frustration, anger, heightened emotion and restoring balance to your inner self, you can continue to be a valued employee who is in control of their emotions, and can be relied upon to work with a strong personal work ethic and professionalism.