Staff Training: Practicing Coworker Confrontations

By Sarah Kurtz McKinnon

Here's a staff training module that has a huge impact that I have seen very few camps do. Essentially, we need to train our staff to be able to have tough(er) conversations with each other. We might call these co-worker confrontations.

Too often at camp, our staff do not know how to approach each other with small grievances or problems. They let the issue fester until it becomes an extremely large problem, or cross their fingers in the hopes that some sort of administrator deals with it. However, when our staff members are able to keep each other in check and work out issues independently, camp runs a lot more smoothly. As camp leaders, we have a lot less drama and a lot more time to do things that really matter. And, when our staff are able to coach and correct each other, as well as work out issues on their own, a positive, respectful starts to be built. Finally, the ability to approach a coworker about a bump in the road is a hugely beneficial lifeskill that will benefit our staff in whatever career path they choose (or even with their future spouse)!

So, here's the activity. It's really simple:

1. Provide some background.

Ask your staff, "What are some of the reasons you came to camp?" Responses will be things like "make a difference" or "help kids" or "give back." Then, once you've gotten some positive answers, ask the group "so...did anyone come here to ruin things? Do a terrible job? Mess everything up?" The answer will be no.

Then explain that when camp gets going, tensions can run high. Small things that our coworkers might do either annoy us or really bother us. On the other side of the coin, if we were to do something that really bothered our coworker, we'd want to know about it, since we all came here to make things better and not worse.  We are all on the same page that we are here to make a positive difference for the kids. So we have to come to the mutual understanding that we will support each other in that effort.

2. Present a little framework.

Explain that sometimes you will need to approach a coworker when something isn't going quite right. Maybe this person is your co-counselor and is letting the campers stay up way past their bed time, resulting in difficult mornings. Maybe this person is a fellow lifeguard in the swim area and is letting the kids play a rougher game than you are comfortable with in the water. Maybe this person is a friend on staff who got whipped cream all over your favorite overalls during last night's evening activity (VERY annoying indeed!!). In all of these situations, it is up to you as a caring coworker to initiate a conversation with your fellow staff member. Here are general guidelines for this type of conversation. After you introduce each bullet point, ask the group why they think this element is important.

Use a kind tone, assuming positive intent.

Remember, no one signed up for this job to ruin things. Most problems between coworkers at camp come down to communication problems or misunderstandings!

Briefly but clearly describe why the action/situation bothers you.

In other words, express the negative impact of the situation. Consider using natural versions of "When you do this, I feel that" statements.

Provide an alternative

Make some suggestions of what would be better, or work together to find a mutually agreeable situation.

Express your continuing trust in your coworker

Thank them for having the conversation with you.

3. Practice!

Finally, here are some role-play scenarios that you can use! Choose the ones that make the most sense for your camp and your staff members' abilities.

When I do role plays with staff, I like to start them with a partner. Everyone practices at the same time just with the partner. For the first scenario you choose, one person can be the person being confronted and the other person the confronter. For the second scenario, switch roles. For the third scenario, switch partners. After each scenario, I like to ask the group questions like, "Who had a partner who handled this situation really well? What did they do?" or "Why was this situation hard or awkward for you?" or "What made this situation easy for you?". Once everyone has a chance to practice a few times, you can bring up some brave souls to role play more difficult or complex scenarios in front of the whole group, and then ask the group to provide feedback.

When presenting in these situations, make sure you also answer the question to the group of when it's appropriate to handle a situation on your own versus when it is necessary to come to a leadership team member. You definitely want your staff to be independent problem-solvers, but you also definitely want to avoid the situation where staff handle too much on their own, resulting in further troubles.

Scenarios For Role Play Activity

  • Your co-counselor has planned all of the nighttime cabin activities for the rest of the week.  You had some ideas, but s/he is already set in what the cabin is going to do each night.
  • Your co-counselor is never “there”….it seems that s/he is always in the office or somewhere else on “important business.”  The kids are beginning to ask where s/he always is.
  • Your co-counselor is talking with your teenage campers about inappropriate stuff, including details about his/her love life. 
  • Your co-counselor NEVER showers.
  • Your co-counselor is taking an all-cabin game of soccer too far – his/her competitiveness is ruining it for the kids…and it’s not the first time this has happened.
  • Your co-counselor has been wearing your sweatshirt for the last few days and you want it back.
  • Your co-counselor has been getting up really early but always makes a lot of noise around the cabin, waking you up since you are a light sleeper.  The kids sleep through it.
  • Your co-counselor is usually relaxed, but becomes extremely strict and ornery during rest hour, scaring your campers.
  • Your co-counselor is constantly looking in the mirror/grooming his/her self in front of the kids.
  • A camper wets the bed in the middle of the night.  Your co-counselor does not get up to help – s/he grunts, rolls over and goes back to bed, leaving you to do everything. It’s now the next morning.
  • Your co-counselor keeps on promising things to your campers that you don’t think are all going to happen, like a nighttime boat ride and extra-special desserts. You think he/she is setting them up for disappointment.
  • Your co-counselor is on Instagram in the cabin when s/he thinks no one can see him/her.
  • Your co-counselor is constantly late to meals, sauntering 10-15 minutes late each time without any explanation or apology.
  • Your co-counselor is dominating the conversation in the cabin and always just sharing stores about him/her self.
  • Your co-counselor allows campers to swear within the cabin walls, which is against your overall camp’s policy.
  • Your co-counselor told your campers they could use their cell phones as long as s/he “doesn’t see it.”
  • You think your co-counselor is trying to be the more “popular” counselor with the campers, and is bending rules/making you the “bad cop” in order to do so.
  • Your counselor has been griping about the overnight campout all week, and you think his/her lack of enthusiasm is rubbing off on the campers.
  • Your co-counselor snatches up the last Choco Taco before the kids have gotten their pick of the ice cream novelties.
  • Your co-counselor has been “sick” all week, spending a lot of time in the infirmary sleeping on the couch and being lackadaisical in the cabin.  S/he went to the doctor and has gotten a clean bill of health, yet continues to act sick.  You think there’s something else going on.
  • Your co-counselor’s boyfriend/girlfriend just broke up with him/her.  You think this has made him/her short with the campers and disinterested in their well-being.
  • One of your fellow staff members has just posted a whole barrage of rowdy time off pictures on Instagram.  You don’t think that they are the kind of person who is meticulous about their privacy settings.
  • A fellow instructor in your swim class went to the waterfront director with a slew of complaints about you before talking with you about these issues.  You wonder why you couldn’t work out these problems one-on-one.
  • One of your campers is really close with a former counselor of theirs who is now in a different cabin.  The camper is feeling homesick, so s/he goes to the old counselor.  The old counselor has been handling the problem, but had not been communicating his/her actions with you.
  • You’re working in the activity area of a seasoned counselor who has been running that activity for a very long time.  However, the counselor always seems disorganized and the activity does not start until at least 20 minutes into the hour.
  • Your CIT constantly apologizes for every misstep or mistake s/he makes, no matter how small.  The profusion of apologies is starting to get to you.
  • All your CIT does is listen music on his/her Beats by Dr. Dre.  And doesn’t do anything else.  This CIT was a favorite camper of yours and acts like everything is cool.
  • Your CIT always asks you permission to do things, like go to the bathroom.
  • Somehow, your campers have found out that you are dating someone else on staff.  You suspect either your co-counselor or your CIT has told them.
  • Another counselor is really clingy to you, always wanting to spend time with you on time off, ride in your car, do the same things as you at free time.  You want time to hang out with other counselors and build friendships but don’t want to lose this person as a friend.
  • Your co-counselor keeps on using the word “ghetto.”
  • A friend of yours on staff consistently wants to engage in gossip about other staff members, and tries really hard to get any information out of you.
  • Your co-counselor wears a shirt to bed with a beer company logo on it.
  • Your co-counselor treats your CIT like a camper, even though the CIT is very capable.
  • Your co-counselor requests time off on the night of your campout because s/he doesn’t want to be there, leaving you high and dry with the rest of a cabin of eight-year-olds and a CIT who is just ho-hum.
  • You don’t think one of your best friends on staff is taking very good care of his/her self this summer.  S/he always seems tired, but fails to rest on time off.  You’re worried.

Giving credit where credit is due: I've had this list in my files for quite awhile. I am guessing I made it up along with a few fellow members of the ~2013 YMCA Camp Al-Gon-Quian leadership team!


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Sarah Kurtz McKinnon is a camp director, consultant and trainer. She's also one of the co-founders and co-facilitators of The Summer Camp Society! Reach her at kurtz@thesummercampsociety.com.