Crew Life » Career & Training » Managing the War of Words On Board

Managing the War of Words On Board

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Have you heard the term ‘the elephant in the room’?

At Crew Glue we’ve worked with a number of teams with issues from their past which still hang in the air like a toxic smog, never to be spoken about or dealt with. Then there are the conversations that no one wants to have, and the obvious truths that are being avoided when things just don’t seem to be working on board. This is your elephant in the room.

Working as a close-knit team on board, we often avoid the unsettling emotions that come with addressing issues head on, either because we dislike conflict, we’re fearful of the repercussions of speaking up, or we feel it’s not our responsibility to deal with it. However all hope is not lost.

When the relationship between crew members on board is good, humour and honesty are great tools for addressing difficult issues. It’s always a good idea to be honest, to apologise when necessary and to do whatever you need to get back on stable ground. It’s when we don’t have that rapport and ability to talk easily about the issues that they tend to grow into ugly situations.

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If you feel someone has done you wrong, let them know that you expect an apology and move on. This simple act will put you back in control and help to lighten the mood. Equally, seeing things from another’s perspective can be a huge help in resolving a conflict. Research also shows that learning to forgive can elevate mood, help us feel more optimistic and guard against anger, stress, anxiety and depression.

It’s also important to take into consideration the costs of not managing these issues, which can severely compromise service and safety on board. Meetings can also be a waste of time if crew won’t speak up as there is no real discussion or debate and you’ll often see less creativity and problem-solving if people’s minds are elsewhere.

People who avoid issues may also avoid each other and hide in their cabins, and if this eventually impacts crew turnover it will also cost the boat time and money. Losing talented, skilled crew who understand the vessel, the owner and the guests should be avoided at all costs, as talent is difficult and costly to replace.  

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Here are seven steps to dealing with those pesky elephants:

Make sure the issue is real   

Think carefully before you speak up. It’s important to first establish whether it is an issue for you alone, in which case it should be dealt with privately. To avoid upsetting or unsettling others, do a quick reality check with one or two people you trust and find out if they feel the same way.

This important step protects everyone from the damage of misunderstanding, and if you all agree that it needs to be dealt with, you will be in it together and can support each other.

Make a plan and stick to it

Bringing up an uncomfortable or controversial topic often produces a flood of emotions in yourself and those around you. Having a concrete plan ready beforehand will enable you to maintain the clear head you need to manage the discussion.

Try jotting down some important points to keep the conversation on topic and when the time comes to have the discussion, be sure to stick to your plan so that an emotional hijacking will not lead you astray.Rehearse what you'll say to open the conversation and think about the possible directions it may go. If there are a number of you tackling this issue, work together on ways you can reinforce each other.

Also ask yourself what outcome you'd like to see. Be brave, be creative and be organised about your objectives so you can keep the dialogue clear and concise rather than emotional, aggressive or submissive.

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Consider the timing

Address the issue as early as possible, as the sooner it is resolved, the sooner you can focus on other priorities. If there's an issue anywhere in your relationships, on-board or with leadership, don't delay - take care of it before that elephant becomes a full-fledged circus.

If you're addressing an issue that's been simmering for a while, think about the best moment to tackle the situation. Choose a time when those involved are likely to be less emotional and stressed, when distraction will be at a minimum and no one outside the situation is likely to be around. Good timing will increase the odds that those involved will be cooperative and amenable to solutions.

Get to the heart of the matter

Be direct, honest and thorough - by naming what everyone is avoiding, you will transform the elephant into an obstacle that you can tackle. Be open and present the details to the best of your knowledge. Be straightforward with all the information, even if it is unpleasant. Tiptoeing around even small aspects of the issue will only perpetuate the tension.

Be direct, too, as this enables you to manage others’ perceptions and prevent the problem from becoming distorted by rumours. Being direct, honest, and thorough shows respect and builds trust.

Be mindful of emotions

Some people may be sensitive or hurt in the course of the discussion; some are likely to be expressive, while others may become quiet and withdrawn. Make sure to be mindful of emotions by acknowledging what people are feeling and being supportive. Those who have been questioned will certainly want some time to go away and think about it, so don’t press your point endlessly or expect instant thanks. These things take time.

Make it two way

Once you have had the opportunity to clear the air, it is time to make space for feedback. There is likely to be some degree of unrest, so be sure to allow all parties to express their thoughts. The atmosphere should remain relaxed so crew feel comfortable being open and sharing their view of the situation. If their perspective doesn’t match yours, don’t dismiss it - there is no prize for being right, only for finding a happy compromise.


Memories of an event are shaped by the moment when everything comes to a close, regardless of how many bumps we hit along the way. Even if the discussion was a rocky one, closure is a sure-fire way to give everyone confidence that brighter days lie ahead.

*Photos by Nik Macmillan, Noah Silliman, David Clode,  Malvestida Magazine and Anthony Tran on Unsplash

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