Documenting Your Conflict

Writing with pen and paper

One of the most common questions people in a difficult situation ask is how they should document their concerns. When they suspect they are being bullied or harassed, what is the best course of action?

Whether it was a fraught email exchange or a questionable conversation, it is critical to document what just happened, not just for the sake of creating a “paper trail” but also for you to put the event into context. As vivid as the incident now seems, your recollections will fade. You might forget critical details. And, if you don’t maintain a record of what has happened as it unfolds, it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing the latest incident as an isolated one, rather than part of a pattern of behavior. For all these reasons, documenting instances of bullying, harassment, or other bad behavior as it happens is crucial.

The Written Word

If you’ve received emails that you feel are inappropriate or demonstrate an ongoing pattern of harassment or dysfunction, you should save them. There are many ways that you can do this, but one  basic one is to save the email as a pdf via the print function. You can save a series of emails to the same folder. For ease of identification, use a file naming convention that includes the name of the sender and date.

You can use the same approach for text messages by screenshotting them. Again, the key is to save them in a way that will facilitate future access and preserve their context, so include the sender and date in your file names.

Recorda Me (But Not Without My Consent)*

But what about conversations that don’t leave a paper trail? With the widespread availability of phones and other recording devices, you might be tempted to take a page out of Richard Nixon’s book and document key conversations by surreptitiously recording them.**

Recording others without their knowledge or consent is not a good strategy, and not just because it’s the kind of thing that erodes mutual trust or because it can, as in Nixon’s case, have unforeseen consequences. Such records violate UNLV’s Video and Audio Recording Policy, which establishes that all video, audio/video, and audio-only recordings are subsumed under NRS 396.970, which states that “it is unlawful for a person to engage in any kind of surreptitious electronic surveillance on a campus of the System without the knowledge of the person being observed.” The policy further dictates that, outside of a few exceptions, “individuals are prohibited from recording in-person conversations on the university campus without the knowledge of each individual being recorded.”

Secretly recording a conversation, then, is a violation of both UNLV policy and state law. Submitting such a recording as evidence of bullying or other harassment might expose you to disciplinary action.

You might see some wiggle room here—what if you are meeting off campus, or what if you use your phone to secretly record an online meeting? You can review the policy yourself to decide if such eventualities would be permitted under it, but even you believe it doesn’t violate the policy, others may not see it that way.

Writing It Down

Even without audio recordings, you do have an option to document conversations: after your encounter, take the time to write down an account of what happened. While this may not be a “smoking gun” in the same way that an audio recording might be, it will help you both document patterns of misbehavior and process how the behavior is affecting you.

As a historian, I have always advocated keeping written records, but recently I read a working paper by MIT’s ombuds of almost 42 years, Mary Rowe, that changed the way I think about this kind of documentation. In “If You Have Been Harassed or Bullied: Some Ideas to Consider,” Dr. Rowe discusses the importance of writing a letter to the person who has wronged you. Rowe makes excellent points:

Drafting an imaginary letter to the offender can help you to develop, consider, and prepare for many options. (It costs no money, you stay in control of the facts and protect your privacy, it helps with stress, you can take the time you need, you can consult with people you trust, and you can decide later how, if at all, you wish to use the draft.)

Rowe describes three parts to documentation. In the first section, stick to “just the facts” by describing, as objectively and emotionlessly as possible, exactly what happened. Put everything in, even the facts that aren’t necessarily favorable to your position. I had experience doing this kind of writing when I worked casino security: simply describing what I saw, and noting any pertinent facts (if writing up a slip-and-fall, for example, I would note the presence (or absence) of any defect or debris on the floor, an whether the area was well-lit). When you are in “facts” mode, you aren’t arguing anything or trying to score points: you are simply describing.

Next, Rowe says, write about your “opinions and feelings,” explaining how the incident affected you. Be honest here: if you are infuriated, say that you are infuriated. If you are afraid, say that you are afraid. You might remember that you were upset a week from now, but you might not recall the exact details, so this is your chance to take an emotional snapshot that will preserve exactly how you felt. And one day, when you have put the conflict behind you, re-reading this will give you a sense of how far you have come. Again, the key here is to be honest.

Finally, Rowe suggests exploring potential remedies. What do you think should happen next? How should things change? Feel free to provide a range of options here. The idea is to end your writing by thinking about steps you or others can take to make things better, reminding you that, however bad the situation, you do have some power.

Captain’s Log, Supplemental

You can decide what to do with your letter or journal once you’ve had a chance to think about your conflict. The important thing is to document it as it happens.

I like to think of documentation as a “captain’s log” that we each can keep. Having never served aboard a seagoing vessel, my first exposure to the concept of a captain’s log came from Star Trek. In the original series, the log was a dramatic device to let viewers who had just tuned in (or who had forgotten the plot during the commercial break) just what was going on. For example:

“Captain’s log, Stardate 5431.5. We are beaming down to a primitive glaciated planet in the Sigma Draconis star system. Time left to us to find Spock’s brain, eight hours and twenty nine minutes.”

The captain’s log could also be used at the start of an episode to set up the premise, obviating a clumsy dump of expository dialogue. Initially, captain’s logs were strictly factual, sticking to the who, what, when, and where: the first part of Rowe’s “letter.” As the Star Trek franchise matured, however, the captains recording them became more introspective, delving more deeply into their emptions. Near the close of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Kirk records the following entry:

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 8141.6. Starship Enterprise departing for Ceti Alpha V to pick up the crew of USS Reliant. All is well. And yet, I can’t help wondering about the friend I leave behind. “There are always possibilities,” Spock said. And if Genesis is indeed “life from death”, I must return to this place again.”

Here we see Kirk start by recording the facts, then processing, in his own way, the loss of his friend Spock, and suggesting a remedy: a return just in time for the sequel.

A masterful use of the captain’s log as a tool for understanding can be seen in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “In the Pale Moonlight,” in which Captain Benjamin Sisko uses his log to untangle just happened:

“It’s only been two weeks… I need to talk about this. I have to justify what’s happened… what I’ve done… at least to myself. I can’t talk to anyone else… not even to Dax. Maybe if I just lay it all out in my log, it’ll finally make sense… I can see where it all went wrong… where I went wrong…

If you haven’t watched the episode, you really should: it is some of the best storytelling put on screen in the five-plus decades of Star Trek. Sisko’s final log (don’t click if you want to watch the episode—huge spoilers) shows him coming to terms with his actions and facing a difficult truth. We should all strive for that level of honesty with ourselves.

And honesty is what we should seek for when documenting events, and when reflecting on them, honesty in both how we record them and how we perceive them. Without being honest with yourself about your conflict, your chances of a positive outcome are minimal.

One final reminder: the Ombuds Office is a resource for every member of the campus community in conflict. If you would like to speak with an impartial voice in a confidential setting that is completely distinct from any formal process, disciplinary or otherwise, do not hesitate to make an appointment with the Ombuds. Our door is open.

* The section title isn’t a typo, but a reference to a sublime Joe Henderson tune.

** I am aware that John F. Kennedy actually began the White House’s audio recording program, but Nixon did revive the system, apparently with an eye on using them to write his memoirs.

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