Nearly every day, my client Sean arrived at work to a voicemail from her co-worker Jackson, who was three time zones away. “Call me as soon as you get this,” barked the voice on the other end. “You’ve got big problems here!”
It was one of the most difficult working relationships she’d ever had. Negative. Blaming. Self-centered. Mean. In short, it gave her a reason to hate coming to work every day.
And maybe you have one, too: a colleague you absolutely dread coming in contact with during the workday, whether he or she works in your cube, around the corner, or across the country. In your mind, he or she exists solely to make your life a living hell.
As much as you’d probably prefer to simply ignore the person, you need to find a way to work past your differences. Why? Research shows that the better the relationships you have at work, the more productive, successful, and satisfied you’ll be.
So if you’re stuck in the office with a person who you just don’t like, it’s in your best interest to figure out how to deal with it. Here’s how.
1. Get to Know the Person
As a human, you have a tendency to like people who are like you. It’s a psychological occurrence called the mere exposure affect.
If your unlikable office mate is very different from you, that fact alone may keep you from building a better relationship with him or her—regardless of his or her behavior.
So, force yourself out of your comfort zone and reach out to your co-worker to get to know him or her on a more personal level. The more you get to know someone, the more you may recognize similarities between you—and the more likely you’ll be to change your mind about him or her.
2. Don’t Take the Behavior Personally
Sean would often make comments like, “Jackson hates me—I know it” or, “I’m sure Jackson’s out to get me.”
She was observing his behavior and interpreting it as an intentional, direct attack on her. In reality, it’s more likely that Jackson’s personal history was driving his behavior. In The Four Agreements, Miguel Ruiz encourages readers to take nothing personally.
“Nothing others do is because of you,” he writes. “When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.” Jackson’s behavior—whether it stemmed from childhood issues, poor role models in the workplace, or a lack of self-confidence—was far more about him than it was about Sean.
3. Set Boundaries
One of the challenges of unlikable people is that they come with equally unlikable behavior—and it’s important to learn how to distance yourself from that behavior. As Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Sean had to learn how to determine and communicate boundaries for her interactions with Jackson. For example, instead of simply taking the urgent phone calls every day and letting the anger build up, she learned to confront Jackson and say, “I feel frustrated when you exaggerate how bad a situation is. Please call me prepared with specific facts and examples that I can take action on.”
4. Try the Little Things
Some of my clients have admitted that the people who once rubbed them the wrong way are now their best friends. And it wasn’t because the disliked colleague had a sudden, major transformation. Instead, my clients took small, incremental actions to better the workplace relationship.
And I mean small—like saying “Good morning!” or “Have a good night!” when you pass the person in the office, offering to grab him or her a latte on a coffee run, or giving an affirming smile or nod after the person makes a helpful comment in a meeting.
You can’t change the other person. But you can change the energy you spend on him or her—from negative and resentful to positive and generative. Little by little, these small gestures will help fill you with (at least a little) positivity about the person who irritates you.
5. Control What You Can
One of the biggest stressors I see in the workplace is the desire for people to control what they cannot. They wish their boss was nicer, the company had a different culture, or their colleagues were more likable.
But, as you probably know, your real leverage lies in the things you can control. Sean certainly could not control Jackson’s legendary voicemail tirades, but she was able to take a few deep breaths, ask for more specific facts, avoid responding with knee-jerk emotion, and get to the heart of the message underneath the outbursts.
Anger and frustration are a choice you make. Instead, choose behaviors that allow you to manage conflict more effectively and with a more positive mindset.
6. Take a Break
Sometimes, you just have to step away from the people who aren’t allowing you to be your very best self. There were days, for example, when Sean simply responded that she’d get back to Jackson at a later date or time.
No one needs to be a hero every hour of the day. You can excuse yourself from a hallway conversation, choose a day to work remotely, or plan a day that involves absolutely no meetings with your colleague. Sure, it can’t be every day. But when you need to take a step back, do it.
It’s not all unicorns and rainbows in the workplace, that’s for sure. For every person you love working with, it’s likely there’ll be another you find equally repellant. But if you take specific steps to make that relationship more of a generative force and less of a negative one, you’ll find more success, satisfaction and support in your work.