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The Key to Success: Navigating Organizational Bureaucracy with NVC

Nonviolent communication is simple and straightforward, that is in theory. Actively engaging in it with other human beings can be quite a bit more difficult, a daunting task for a beginner like me. However, I did try it out with regard to a situation at work and here’s what happened.


I work in a local hospital as a medical secretary/transcriptionist in the Pathology Department. My duties take me regularly to the Morgue, where not only bodies are stored but also our pathology materials (slides and tissue blocks) in an adjoining room. On a sojourn down to the basement I found myself unable to open the door. I assumed that the lock was defective and put in an online work order for Facilities Management (our stationary engineers) to correct it. I got a reply back that my request had been “cancelled”. No work order was needed as the lock had been changed. This was the first time I heard about it. I was told by the doctor I work for, the Lab’s Medical Director, that a body had been removed without the correct authorization. The issue was corrected but someone (who knows who?) decided for security reasons to change the lock. Typical of hospital management, the people on the bottom of the hierarchy like myself and the Lab’s custodian, the only two people who regularly are in the Morgue, were not informed of the change.


So now I’ve figured out what happened, but where is the new key? I spent the next three days exploring the hospital’s chain of command via e-mail searching for someone who could tell me what I need to know. I communicated with the Manager of Transportation and Parking, the Chaplaincy Director, and to someone whose e-mail listing gave the mysterious title of “Project Management Consultant”. They were polite to me, and as helpful as they could be, although more than once I was asked why I needed these particular keys. Finally I found who actually had the keys and was told that he had dropped off two keys in the Lab two days prior.


The journey to find the missing keys continued. I asked the Lab Manager, the Office Manager the Medical Director and the Front Desk Receptionist if they had received any keys. No, no one knew anything. After another e-mail exchange I was told it was dropped off on the swing shift. That narrowed it down to the two employees scheduled that day and I found out it was Toni (that’s what I’ll call her) who received the keys. She is a woman in her fifties, works here as a phlebotomist, is very outgoing and personable. I’ve enjoyed chatting with her (she has family near where I’m moving to in Washington State), however, I’ve had some difficulty with her with regard to work-related stuff like helping to find a specimen, etc. She’s seemed to me to be a person without good analytical or problem-solving skills, and tends to be a bit dismissive when problems arise. So finally, where is the key to the Morgue? “Oh, it’s hanging where all the other keys are.” I had no idea what she was talking about, I don’t share keys with others in the Lab, and they don’t need a Morgue key and have never had one. She took me to where a key chain hung near her workstation, hidden underneath a clipboard, and handed over the precious key. I think it had been four working days since I initially put my key in the lock and couldn’t open the door (and incidentally, one of the managers lectured me in his e-mail about not using the old key, that is after the fact.)


I went back to my office and sat there, furious at everyone and particularly at Toni. Didn’t she realize someone might be looking for this particular key? What a ditz! But I felt conflicted – part of me wanted to give her a good dressing down for her stupidity and part of me wanted to bury it, which is typically what I am prone to do. I really wanted an outlet to express my frustration, but how can I do this, and in a nonviolent way? So here’s what I did: I approached Toni and said “Toni, I really need to talk to you about what happened to me with the Morgue key” and proceeded to tell her the story from the beginning, starting with the “defective” lock, the cancelled work order, the body taken without proper authorization (Toni’s co-worker Janie, who overheard us, was completely intrigued by this and said “Is the body still missing?”), the hunt up the e-mail chain of command, and finally tracking her down as the recipient of the key. She immediately reacted sympathetically. “I had no idea all the trouble you went through” she commiserated, and then wanted to know how I had tracked her down (with last week’s schedule it was easy). All three of us ended up laughing at the story, which as I stated previously is somewhat typical of this hospital’s management.


So what made this work for me? I think my need to express frustration without assigning blame was the most important thing. Also telling it in story form, beginning with what happened days before, got me out of blame mode and focused on what my real emotional need was in present time, that is, to speak out for myself and my experience without expecting or anticipating anything in return.

Marcus D., San Francisco, 2019

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