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5 Errors to Avoid in Training on Sexual Harassment and Assault

Words Matter When We Need to Influence Behavior

These five strategies are based on the belief that our ultimate goal is to prevent serious harm.

And to prevent serious harm, we must prevent the behaviors that cause serious harm.

Influencing the behavior of other people is not a simple task, but it’s virtually impossible if we are not able to connect.

Before covering these five practices to increase connection, I believe it is important to make the case for why they are needed and why we should expect to be connecting with almost everyone. Because the current status quo is such that a relatively high percentage of people are either apathetic, complacent, or resistant on these issues.

Who are we trying to influence, and what behaviors are we talking about?

It is important to first see that many different types of people cause real harm to others. One reason there are many different types of people who cause harm is because there are many different types of actions that can cause real harm. Most people would not ever be extremely violent toward another person, but that is only one way of causing harm.

It doesn’t take violence for a person to be violated.

For example, smartphones and other technology can be used to violate basic privacy and cause disturbing experiences without any physical contact at all. Less violent and non-violent behaviors are more common. More people are susceptible to rationalizing unethical actions that do not involve extreme violence. What could be viewed by an immature young man as no big deal or a funny “prank,” or viewed as normal because his friend has done the same, is actually voyeurism and can cause the same trauma as physical violence.

We could go on about the examples of “non-violent,” violating behaviors, but the point is we must not fall into the misconception that we are only talking about obviously violent actions by truly pathological people.

Envisioning psychopaths and sociopaths as the only people who cause harm to others is an error that can feed apathy, complacency, and resistance. Business leaders, administrators, parents, and most other people may take comfort in assuming “those kinds of things wouldn’t happen here” because they embrace the misconception that it would take a pathological person to cause serious harm.

That’s almost entirely wrong. Even some pathological people won’t commit serious harm. And many otherwise good people can rationalize truly damaging behavior.

It is important for those in a leadership role and those who care about preventing harm to remember the number of pathological and extremely morally flexible people in your community is not zero, but it is equally important to understand that it doesn’t take a pathological person to cause serious harm. This is a “yes, and” situation. Yes, sadistic people exist, and they are not the only kind of person who can mistreat and violate another (or who could fail to recognize how serious a friend or peer’s actions are).

But there is good news here.

Because that means there are a lot of people we can reach and can influence with highly strategic training and messaging.

Since much of the abusive and violating behaviors are actually committed by people who are not pathological, we should be able to prevent a high percentage of abusive and violating behaviors.

The problem is it is not easy to connect with those non-pathological people we need to reach. Common messaging can miss-the-mark, leave confusion in place, and even backfire and evoke resistance.

It may be tempting to paint those who “don’t get it” as a group of insensitive and uncaring people. But if we look closer, that is rarely the case. Only a very small percentage of people really do not care at all about an innocent person being seriously harmed. Our world is full of decent, caring, kind, and even open-minded men and women who are not yet engaged in the problems of sexual assault and harassment or abusive relationships.

Because there is a disconnect. And the reality of this disconnect must be considered if we are to bridge the divide.

It’s not as though people are not aware these issues exist. Everyone with either a tv or a phone, or a friend or a family member who has a tv or phone, knows these problems exist.

People are aware, so why don’t they care?

The problem is in the disconnect, not in a lack of awareness.

Countless good people are aware, yet they are apathetic, complacent, or resistant to hearing about efforts to prevent sexual assault, harassment, and abuse. That does not make any sense. That means we need to do something different in our communication that works.

If decent people don’t get it, it’s our job to communicate in a way that helps connect the dots.

You have never been influenced by someone you do not listen to. The same is true for everyone else.

You have never changed your behavior in private because someone you dismissed as not credible, out-of-touch, or irrelevant to you and your life was talking in front of a room a week or a month ago.

Neither you nor I have ever changed our behavior because we were required to complete a click-through module we did not connect with or feel was relevant to our lives.

We must connect with people if we expect them to be engaged.

Access precedes influence.

We cannot prevent harmful behavior if we do not first gain access to that person’s mind and heart. And we cannot influence behavior in private situations if we do not reach people at a deep enough level to shift certain paradigms and connect the dots on the trauma they would be causing with their actions.

Since access precedes influence, we must avoid what shuts down access.

We should be connecting with almost everyone.

And it’s not just young men, old men, straight men, or the rest of men that we need to reach. Yes, them. But to elevate a culture, to improve the workplace experience, to build safer school and campus communities, and to accelerate our progress as a society on preventing harmful behaviors, we must achieve almost universal buy-in.

And why shouldn’t we?

We are talking about preventing life-altering harm. What we are talking about is basic human decency that rises above words and actions that violate the basic boundaries and wishes of another human being.

What we are talking about is a standard of moral responsibility to consider one’s actions and words, and the effect they could have on another person.

That’s what we’re talking about. Since virtually all people agree on those things, we should be able to achieve almost universal buy-in. But we have to avoid some things in our communication. We need to avoid what evokes resistance or misses the mark and leaves people thinking they’re done because they’re “aware” of these issues.

Traditional training on sexual assault, harassment and abusive relationships/domestic violence is widely understood to be difficult to do and often not well-received by men. Years after federal legislation increased training on college campuses, even open-minded men on campuses are still saying that training is not connecting.

And even with awareness at an all-time high, research conducted by Dyad Strategies that surveyed tens of thousands of sorority women confirmed that victim-blaming/misplacing blame is still a major problem. (It takes a more strategic approach than raising awareness and shaming victim-blaming).

Major news stories of celebrities, judges, and other accomplished people show callousness, misplacing blame, and clearly inappropriate behavior is still present at all levels of society.

Awareness of the problem often leaves confusion and misconceptions in place. And sometimes it creates a false sense of accomplishment.

We must connect. We need all decent people on board to create the cultures and society people deserve now.

The good news is many more men and women from every viewpoint are open to being engaged if we can bridge the gap. There are simple practices that can be applied to make it much easier to connect with a broader audience.

In my last six years of providing live-training, developing programs for organizations, and having one-on-one conversations with people ranging from skeptics to survivors, I have found that avoiding these five errors dramatically increases our ability to have productive conversations that connect and engage both men and women.


Jargon and unnecessary terminology.

Why? Because jargon and terminology are not as effective at communicating to a broad audience. In academia and higher ed in general, people can feel a pressure to speak the language of their peers to show they too are up-to-speed on the most current ways of talking about things. In any industry, there is a common lingo. And all of us have what has been called a curse of knowledge in which we forget what it was like to not know something once we know it well. When I mention this in live training for staff and trainers, I often feel I need to defend myself because it is so common to use jargon and terminology to teach and talk about these issues. So TED Talks are a pretty good independent support for this position. If you are doing a TED Talk, they will recommend or require that you remove jargon and all unnecessary terminology from your talk. That's because it makes some people feel like outsiders and it breaks a common rule of great communication.


The more-of-the-same approach--repeating the same training & messaging, just more frequently.

With the increased attention and heightened concern that has arisen from the #MeToo movement, some leaders are (understandably) making the error of assuming they should just require training more often. It is possible that more training that did not connect the first or second time will make some positive impact the third time, but it is also likely--and most people have seen this--that it evokes greater resistance and mockery from those it doesn't connect with. This feeds polarization and defensiveness. That means it can be counterproductive. It can create issue fatigue. Decent people start to say, "I'm tired of hearing about this." Those of us who work in the field of prevention and know victims/survivors can criticize that mentality, but it doesn't change the fact that more training that's not connecting can be a problem. The backfire effect is not something to ignore. Creating "noise" is a factor that must be considered. A more-of-the-same approach may be the perfect solution for other training needs, but not for optimizing buy-in on these complex issues.


Political or politicized language.

This may require a separate post of its own, but it shouldn't be a controversial statement to say that language that sounds political will turn off people who are skeptical of that political "side" or worldview. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has written extensively about why words will not resonate with a person's brain if they do not find a natural fit somewhere in their existing way of thinking. He provides the scientific explanation for why it can be tricky to communicate by using partisan or politicized language and expect to be heard by someone with a different political worldview. But we also know this intuitively, from our own experience. There are reasons why you avoid bringing up religion and politics if you are trying to connect with people socially. Messaging that is speaking to a certain audience for a political campaign can obviously be crafted to speak to those who are insiders and who resonate with that language, but even that is debatable. Also, some have come to see sexual assault prevention and domestic violence prevention as a progressive-side issue, but this is not good for the goal of optimizing prevention of harm. We need all decent people on board. And both progressives and conservatives must remember that people of any political worldview can rationalize immoral and harmful behavior. Training and messaging that seeks to connect with a broad audience, as this type of training must, inhibits itself by doing what will naturally evoke defensiveness and resistance in a significant percentage of those we need to reach.


Over-reliance on raising awareness, sharing statistics, and providing information "about" the issues.

People are already aware these issues exist, but they are confused about them. If training or messaging teaches something about the problem but does not connect enough to get people to the solution, it creates the very serious problem of a false sense of accomplishment. When even judges, prosecutors, professors, CEOs, school principals, and some of your most intelligent and decent family members do not fully understand these complex and confusing issues, then we cannot expect to significantly move the needle by repeating statistics, facts and slogans that call for people to be aware and care about the issue they already think they are aware of. If people think they're done learning--and I have seen this on the face of countless professionals, executives, student leaders, and other smart and decent people--then they take a default mentality of "I'm aware, so I'm done learning about it and this is not my thing." No one says this (well, some people do), but you see the apathy and complacency in their behavior. They do not understand the actual risk of serious harm happening to someone close to them or committed by someone in their organization or school. If they did understand, they would be acting differently. They would have a sense of urgency to do more, to ask more questions, and to seek optimal solutions. They would have no tolerance for a check-the-box mentality to get people off their back or to please legal counsel. That's how we know people do not understand, despite being aware.


Reliance on piecemeal approaches rather than building a system like we do in other areas of business and education.

The piecemeal approach of addressing sexual assault and harassment and abusive behaviors/dating violence, etc. is something the future will look back on and find either odd or ridiculous. Leaders and decision-makers should not be surprised to hear a recommendation that a piecemeal, one-time, or "annual requirement" approach is not wise because that approach has already proven itself to be ineffective. It's been going on for decades in the corporate world. It is surprising to see campuses, national fraternal organizations, athletics organizations, and every other segment of society try to "catch up" with and model the approaches of corporate America when those practices have resulted in sexual harassment training being widely mocked, joked about, considered ineffective, and not relevant as it's been commonly done. Policies have been in place where every major scandal has occurred. In my own community, there is a controversy going on about a local school district's anti-discrimination language in their policy. It's a necessary discussion to have, but a much better discussion is for everyone to understand why a policy is a small piece of proactively preventing harmful behavior. Organizations naturally develop systems to optimize sales and marketing, production, and other areas of business. The same only makes sense for optimizing the development of people and culture through proactive systems of training on positive interpersonal skills and standards. We cannot prevent domestic violence with posters and hashtag campaigns, but we could prevent a lot of it with a proactive system of equipping people for healthy relationships. We must equip people to manage conflict in healthier ways, to navigate physical attraction while having basic consideration of the other person's comfort level. These are life-altering issues that are somewhat common, not rare. That's why a proactive and strategic system is called for. Just like we do when we prioritize anything else. There are no fundraising or sales training strategies that are treated as a once-per-year or so, "it's okay if people don't connect with this; we need to require this training so we can say we did it." In critical business or education goals, we have proper standards and seek optimization.

The Good News…

The good news is people like learning how to be more effective with other people. People like knowing how to have great people skills, and people like receiving helpful education and training that helps them deal with what they find challenging. It is challenging to know how to handle conflict, anger and jealousy in relationships and interpersonal interactions. It’s nice to learn meaningful skills and even reflect on our own attitudes when it feels relevant.

It’s just that no one likes to be accused or blamed (even if they deserve it), so they will not listen to anyone who appears to be accusing them or blaming them for something. That kills the hope of connection.

None of us like to spend time learning about something that we perceive to be irrelevant. And none of us connect with either problems or solutions that seem unrealistic to occur in our own lives.

Those of us who are deeply immersed in the issues of sexual harassment, assault and abusive relationships can see clearly why so much of it is relevant, realistic, and important to know about. But our job is to find the right words to gain access and connect with people so we can connect the dots.

We must respect the reality of diverse worldviews if we are to effectively connect with people and gain true buy-in on a large scale. We must avoid what kills connection and evokes resistance. We must find the words that work, because we should be able to have almost universal buy-in on this simple standard of rising above what causes real harm to another human being.

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