Being reluctant to sort through difficulties at work, seems to be a very human condition. Many of us get frustrated or hurt by others at work, but we refuse to speak to that person directly. Of course, there are some direct types who do so easily, but it does not always come out well.
The main reason people don’t speak up is that they fear the worst – that the other person will become defensive or make their life at work difficult in some way. They may well have good reason for believing this. But the problem in the past may have been due to how the issue was raised.
Other times, people don’t speak up because they think, ‘What’s the point? This person is incapable of change.’ While this is true of some individuals, my experience has been that the great majority of people we find challenging either know they are imperfect and are open to change or they are not aware of how they are coming across and are open to change.
There are, of course, those who think they are perfect, don’t care about how they are coming across, and are not open to change. But that’s an article for another time!
Assuming you have not given up hope of achieving an easier relationship with this person, here are some tips for speaking up and sorting it out:
- Gain the right mindset: By this I mean finding a way of thinking that helps you to approach the conversation well. It could be simply a ‘Let’s work it out’ mindset. It will also help you to project a more helpful demeanour if you expect the best – that you will work something out that is fair for both of you. Other times, a helpful mindset is simply appreciating what the consequences are for yourself and others at your work if nothing is said. Even when you find a helpful mindset for you, you will still need a bit of courage!
- Choose a good time and place: Even a very problematic person at work has better days. Alternatively, agree on a good time and place to speak. My recommendation is to get outside of the workplace, if this is possible. When you change the environment, perhaps meeting over coffee, this can often help to change the dynamics.
- Define the problem in a face-saving way: Typically, problems in workplace relationships are always defined as being due to the other person. Here is where the problem labels come out – bullying, difficult, unreasonable, etc. Such finger-pointing tends to elicit only a defensive response and escalation of the problem. It tends to be more helpful defining the problem as you both being different people, but needing to find a way to work in better with each other. Sometimes, the problem can be defined as both of you being under a lot of stress or simply having had a communication breakdown of some sort. When you can find a definition of the problem that is acceptable to each, this then avoids arguments over whose perspective is correct.
- Keep the focus on the future: There is a time to focus on the past and that is when one person needs a lot of empathy about how they are feeling. But it is all too easy to get caught in a debate over what did or did not occur. If you are going to speak about the past, at least keep the focus on behaviours rather than labelling the other person. As soon as you are able, move the focus of the conversation to the future – what you will both do in the future to help. If what is being offered seems very one-sided, then you might say ‘Can we both ….?’ or suggest a trade. ‘If I do …, will you …?’
- Keep a record: With very problematic relationships and people who are reluctant to do what they say, you might want to agree that what is agreed is written down and you each have a copy. You can say it is to help you both stay on track. Another option is simply to send that person an email of what was agreed. Also keep some private records of the problem behaviours, how you responded, anything that has helped, and for how long there was improvement. Your records may come in handy if you need to gain the advice or support or your management.
- Follow up and reinforce any progress: Rarely is a difficult relationship at work resolved in one conversation. Often the agreement needs to be fine-tuned or recommitted to. If there has been progress, this can at least be reinforced. If there has not been any progress, this is disappointing, but not uncommon. While it might be tempting to return to the status quo of not speaking up or escalating the situation, consider also simply arranging another meeting and going through the same process.
- Have a backup plan: I often say, ‘Expect the best, but prepare for the worst.’ Hopefully, your backup plan will not be needed. But it is there, just in case. Examples of backup plans include:
– If they get defensive, giving them a lot of empathy or finding a better time to talk
– If they have a history of volatility, meeting with them in a public place that is still appropriate to a private conversation
– If they are likely to accuse you of bullying, having an agreed person join you at that meeting – perhaps a friendly face from HR
– If there is no change over time, putting up with them, speaking to their manager, taking formal actions, or perhaps finding yourself another workplace!
Consider if any of the above are relevant for your situation. While it is tempting to simply do nothing apart from get increasingly hurt and frustrated, my experience has been that the great majority of strained relationships at work can be worked through. But it takes two things in particular – a willingness to do things differently as well as some courage!