Toxic Organizations & the Relief of Observations

When you hear someone say they work in a toxic organization, it may seem to you that the only choices you have are to agree and collude, to disagree and argue, or to minimize and try to change the topic. Ugh, these aren’t life-giving choices. Unless you are able to offer empathy and the other person is able to receive empathy, conversations like these lead to disconnect and a sense of bind.

When a label or judgment attempts to describe the quality of something, it is simply an indication of someone’s perception. Hearing someone say that an organization is toxic doesn’t actually tell you anything about that organization. In addition, unless they are holding the intention to move their attention to compassion and self-responsibility, they are likely escalating their own reactivity.

The solution is not about never expressing judgments or labels; it’s about expanding beyond that to include another in a shared reality. An easy way to begin is to find specific neutral observations. Finding specific neutral observations that have triggered judgments, not only helps you enter into a shared reality, but also naturally opens the door to feelings and needs.

Asking for an example of what someone is referring to is often more accessible than an empathy guess. Also, it shows your interest in connecting and typically meets a need to be heard for the other person. Simple questions like the following can help you get in a shared reality without it sounding like an interview:

  • That sounds hard. Like what has happened?

  • What do you mean? What happened?

  • Did something in particular happen today?

  • Is there a particular person you’re struggling with?

  • An example would help me understand what you’re saying. Do you have one?

  • Is there something specific about that meeting?

  • Yeah, just everything has been hard. You mean like both work and school?

When someone is invited into the specifics of what has happened (whether their memory is completely accurate or not), it’s much easier for you and them to connect to feelings and needs. When there is a particularly quality of connection to feelings and needs, responsible action often naturally presents itself. Both you and the other person land in a more empowered place. There is a palpable relief when a conversation moves from a place of judgment and blame, to one of compassion and self-responsibility.


This week look for a time in conversation when you feel the impulse to agree, disagree, or move away. Use that as your cue to get curious about a specific neutral observation.


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