For the third time this week, you popped your head into your co-worker Kate’s office to talk about your client’s needs. Her response on the other end has been gruff tones, impatient sighs, and terse replies. You can practically hear the eye rolls from your office. While you’d prefer to work with someone else, the two of you were specifically chosen to handle one of your firm’s biggest clients. Working well together is imperative. You need to talk to her, but you’re beyond annoyed with her disrespectful and condescending tones. You’re pissed and wondering how to handle it.
If you’ve listened to my podcast more than once, you’ve likely heard me say “In absence of communication, people assume the worst.” So, it’s not unusual that when Kate snaps at you that you default to thinking something along the line of “Kate hates me” or “Kate thinks I’m an idiot.” The problem with such thinking is that it quickly dissolves trust among team members. Soon, not only have you assumed your coworker dislikes you, you believe Kate’s after your job or sabotaging your work. This is slippery slope into a deep dark hole sort of thinking — and it’s not healthy for teams, nor is it healthy for you as an individual. So how do you address your co-worker’s behavior in a healthy non-dysfunctional way?
The first step begins with you
Combat the tendency to default to negative thinking by choosing to assume positive or noble intent on the part of your co-worker. What I mean by this is assume that the other person is a decent human being who does not intentionally mean you harm. You choose to react to the situation with caution, not with guns blazing because you start at a place of accepting that the other person is not a conniving villain.
Practice compassion and curiosity
Next, practice compassion and curiosity toward your co-worker. About now you’re thinking “Brandon, that sounds like something preached at a granola hippie commune, what does that actually look like in the workplace?” I’m glad you asked. It looks like this: when you practice compassion, it means you recognize that your co-worker’s behavior is very likely not about you. Instead, you look beyond yourself and the effect their behavior had on you and imagine for a moment what might have caused them to act in the offensive way that they did.
Then, you get curious. You realize maybe your co-worker snapped at you because they’re under a lot of stress. Maybe it’s an hour before their big presentation at the meeting. Think about what might be going on behind the scenes for Kate. And don’t guess about what it might be; eventually, you will need to get curious with them — talk to them about what’s going on.
Have the conversation
Now you still have to address your co-worker’s behavior if you don’t want it to continue. How can you do it in a way that identifies the actions you want them to change but doesn’t cause the conversation to devolve into unproductive finger pointing? Let’s get practical. In your approach, first identify their offending actions without using the word “you.” Saying to another person “You did x — and it pissed me off” is going to immediately set them on the defensive. Instead, you’ll need to begin with what John Gottman calls the “soft start,” which is exactly what it sounds like. You’re calling attention to the offense in a gentle way rather than full throttle. That might look like this: “Hey, Kate, I noticed when I called into your office earlier you sounded distracted and annoyed.” Note that you begin with what YOU observed, not what Kate did. It sounds like a small detail, but we know it can be the small details that make the biggest differences, right?
Next, you describe the offensive action through a lens of compassion: “I don’t think you intended to be rude…” By this you’re letting the other person know that you’re extending them grace; you’re choosing to not take it personally that they perhaps acted inappropriately.
You continue with curiosity: “So I’m wondering what was going on on your end?” You’re inviting the person to share with you what they were struggling with, hopefully building rapport in your working relationship.
Last, you continue by focusing on solutions for your working future: “And I’m wondering how we can operate going forward that might be more positive because it’s really important that we have a good working relationship.” Once again, you’re emphasizing to your co-worker the importance to you that you align as a team and that you recognize that you both have valuable roles to play for the team. You invite them to share with you ways that will be helpful for you to work together, letting you know what’s working for them and what isn’t.
This is all part of a formula I like to refer to that looks like this:
(Authenticity + Vulnerability) x Curiosity = Deepened Connection
You might be thinking, “but Brandon, what if I say all this to Kate and she continues belittling me during our conversations?” You should note that your conversation with Kate is an invitation for her to leave behind the middle school behavior of huffing and puffing and eye rolling to a more mature working relationship. But invitations to grow up can always be declined. Kate may actually choose to continue her childish behavior. In that event, you will need to go to your boss for assistance. It is the boss’s job to manage the dynamics of the team; not all of them do it or do it well, but it is their job. But fear not, I have found that only about 25% of the time where I’ve seen dynamics like this in the workplace is Kate going to be a reluctant player; 75% of the time conversations like the one above result in a positive path forward and a healthier workplace for those involved. Doesn’t that sound awesome? Won’t it make going to work so much better? The payoff is incredible, and I hope you’ll practice the courage to take it on today.