How to Deal with Difficult Coworkers
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It's inevitable that throughout your career you will encounter difficult coworkers and butt heads with different people at work. This can range from a minor annoyance to dreading coming to work every day and wanting to quit. Strained relationships hurt performance and engagement, plus they just suck.
It takes a lot of courage to attempt to repair a difficult relationship at work. If everyone (*you) went and repaired just one, they (*you) would all be better off.
The reason you’d be better off is because it isn’t just about interactions with that person: It’s about the number of times you’ve complained to friends and family, the distraction it causes you at work, the added stress of playing out angry conversations in your head, and also the general impact on your happiness.
Relationships fraught with friction can be catastrophic to your peace of mind. Not only that, but they often wreak havoc on your performance as an employee and engaged team member.
The truth is that if every leader and employee were able to repair one or two strained relationships at work, it would have a huge, positive impact on workplace culture and team performance.
So how do you actually repair difficult relationships in the workplace?
It starts with an invitation.
It takes a lot of courage to do this, and I wholeheartedly believe that it’s worth it.
Start by going to that person in “cold blood”, meaning at a neutral time when you aren’t in the middle of friction or frustration, and when things are not emotionally charged between you.
Acknowledge that in your experience you’ve observed static, and times when things feel challenging between the two of you. Give them an offer in the form of an invitation to have a conversation, if they are willing, to talk about how you (yes, you) might be able to show up differently and contribute to making things easier between the two of you.
How do you actually say all that? Something just like this:
“In my experience I’ve observed times when things feel challenging between the two of us and I feel some static or frustration. If you are open to it, I would be willing to have a conversation about how I might be able to show up differently and contribute to making things easier between us, and how we can work better together.”
Keep it simple and straightforward, don’t beat around the bush. This approach is plain and direct, and takes ownership without accusing them.
The way you approach and present this is extremely important, as well as how you proceed.
1. Do it as an invitation, not an ultimatum.
Don’t corner them and force the conversation on them. Depending on the context and dynamics of your relationship, it could feel like a blindside to spring a conversation like this on them if they aren’t ready for it. It may trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response and put them on the defensive which will reduce the chance of it being a productive conversation.
Give them the opportunity to think about it, or collect their thoughts, or get back to you later. Or if they want to, have the conversation right then. Presenting it as an invitation allows them a chance to come back to you and say yes, and agree to have the conversation.
The benefit of that is that they’re choosing to have the conversation instead of having it forced on them, which will likely put them in a much more receptive and proactive headspace instead of reactive and defensive.
2. Frame it up with a focus on YOU, not them. Be open to feedback.
A good way to navigate the conversation is to go in asking and listening - not talking. Ask them some questions to hear their perspective and find out what’s going on from their end. Your role for now is to just listen and remain open to hearing what they have to say. Find out if there is a way for you to show up differently to improve things for both of you.
The reality is that even if you believe that you are 100% squeaky clean and have done nothing to contribute to the current state of your relationship with them, that is likely not the case. And regardless of whether it is the case or not, chances are that it’s not the case for them. They may have a long list of grievances that they want to air with you.
What that means is that if you do truly want to repair this relationship you are going to have to ask, and listen, and be willing to hear their perspective and what is true for them, even if you don’t agree with it.
After you have asked asked and listened and heard where they’re coming from, create an opportunity for you to share as well. This can be as easy as asking “Are you open to hearing my perspective and where I’m coming from as well? I think it would be helpful for me to share some of my thoughts and provide some more clarity here.”
My suggestion is to to watch this video (link below) from our #shiftyestribe month around navigating conflict that addresses how to approach these exact conversations when you are convinced the other person is 100% the problem. It may offer you some additional tools and language to help you be more successful here: Navigating Conflict: “What if they’re the problem?”
3. Make amends where needed and stay focused on a resolution.
Take ownership of any ways that you’ve contributed to the situation, and make amends where needed. Keep the conversation focused on pinpointing the source of the friction between you two and finding a resolution moving forward.
Avoid circling around and round about what each of you have done wrong or seeking a pound of flesh for past hurts. Acknowledge what’s been, and move on. If you want a better past, build a time machine. If you want a better future, start now and move forward.
4. Identify what a 10 out of 10 looks like for each of you.
To help guide you to a resolution, ask the question “What does a 10 out of 10 look like for you between us?” In the conversation each of you should share what things would like like if they were totally ideal between the two of you. This includes how you communicate, interact, what the process of how you work together would look like, and how you both can show up differently. Find common ground there and make a commitment to show up differently based on what you hear and what you both agree on.
Lastly, be prepared for the reality that this might have zero effect.
Navigating and resolving conflict is extremely difficult. Depending on the context of your relationship and where that person is at, you have to be fully prepared that this conversation may not have the result you want.
They may reject the offer. They may refuse to admit anything is wrong or out of place at all. They may not be willing or capable of having a difficult conversation like this. Some people are terrible at conflict and treat it like war instead of what it really is; a natural consequence of navigating the world with other human beings. Successfully resolving conflict requires courage, vulnerability, owning up to your mistakes, and being a grown ass adult.
Maybe you extend the invitation and the conversation doesn’t happen until one, or three, or six months later. Maybe just extending the invitation breaks some tension, relaxes things between you two, and causes the relationship to feel better. Prepare yourself for any outcome and don’t be too attached. Do your best, be earnest and humble, and willing to come to the table and listen.
The point is that it’s worth it for yourself and the people around you to make the effort, take ownership of what you can in the situation, and try. Who knows, you might gain a new friend. At the very least maybe you can transform the dynamic and lose having an enemy. Either way is a huge win.
*A great additional resource to help with having difficult conversations is the book Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. Read it, it’s great.*
This article was created by keynote speaker Galen Emanuele for the #shiftyestribe. Free leadership and team culture content centered on a new focus every month. Check out the rest of this month's content and subscribe to the Shift Yes Tribe at http://bit.ly/JointheSYT