Relationships are complicated. And I’m not only talking about romantic relationships—navigating office politics and staying on the right side of the right people in your professional network can be exhausting. Some days, it might feel tempting to just give up and move to a remote location where you’re likely to encounter more wildlife than fellow humans. But if you’re going to stay in an environment populated with people, building and maintaining relationships is key to a successful career.
So what do you do when an important member of your network makes you crazy? It’s easy to think, “Do the obvious: Cut him loose.” But ending a relationship with someone you don’t exactly get along with isn’t always realistic. What if that person is a leader within your industry? A board member for your organization? A colleague you have to work with periodically?
There are many strategies to help you deal with a challenging personality, but the starting point is always to consider your own approach to the person.
Identify Your “Deadly” Communication Habits
Your attitude has a profound influence on the outcome of any situation you’re involved in with this person. You’ve probably heard of the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy: You think a conversation will be awful, for example—and then it is. What you fail to see, however, is that your sour attitude going into the conversation contributed to the conversation going south.
Some of these may seem obvious—of course you know that approaching a colleague with a threat (“Get that TPS report done or I’ll punch you!”) isn’t going to go over well. But people often work these bad habits into communication in more subtle ways. Alluding to a consequence for not complying with your demands (“I really needed those TPS reports yesterday. By the way, I have meeting with the boss in 15 minutes. We’ll probably discuss the reports.”) is just as much of a threat—it simply sounds more professional on the surface. Communication laced with any of these seven bad habits is doomed.
Change Your Approach
You’re likely to have far more productive conversations by replacing these deadly habits with what Glasser calls caring habits: supporting, encouraging, listening, accepting, trusting, respecting, and negotiating differences.
So, for example, instead of making threats to get those reports, you might try supporting your colleague first: “I’ve noticed you sometimes struggle with completing TPS reports each month, and I depend on them for my work. Is there a way I can help you?” This at least opens the door for a solution-focused conversation, rather than raising your colleague’s defenses.
Let’s consider a more complex example. Say you’re on a committee with a colleague you haven’t worked with before. Immediately, you discover he’s loud, talks a lot in meetings, and asks a lot of questions about ideas proposed by other committee members. You might think to yourself, “Geeze, that guy is obnoxious! He picks apart everyone else’s contributions because he thinks his ideas are the only worthy ones.”
You might be right, but you might not. In reality, you don’t know your colleague’s motivations. So when you snap at him in the middle of the next committee meeting (employing those deadly criticizing and punishing habits), you harm your relationship with him—and possibly with the rest of the committee, who might find your behavior just as obnoxious as his.
Now let’s rewind. Your colleague is still loud and inquisitive, but this time you take a deep breath. You remember a time someone misinterpreted something you said or did and how angry it made you. You decide to give it some time before making a judgment about your colleague. Maybe he’s simply opinionated, asks lots of questions because he’s enthusiastic, or plays the role of devil’s advocate to make sure ideas are solid.
A couple of days after the meeting, you drop by your colleague’s office just to chat for a few minutes, and you end up having a good conversation. Later, you have a chance to chat about a committee issue, and he brings up some legitimate concerns about one project that you hadn’t considered—and you’re able to use the habit of listening.
From that one conversation, you’re able to better understand the way he thinks and have more patience for his many questions. In fact, you’re able to help the group talk through some project issues because those conversations have broadened your perspective. You also now have an improved relationship with your colleague, so he doesn’t grate on your nerves quite as much. You may not be the kind of friends who hit happy hour several times a week and hang out on the weekends together. But at least you have pleasant interactions, and you’re more productive because of them.
See the difference? Yes, this is a simple example, but it’s based on real situations. In my own career, I’ve had to make the choice to either stay aggravated with someone or figure out how to make it work. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised when I made the effort to build a relationship with the people I didn’t get along with. You may also be surprised by what you learn about people when you give them a chance and approach them in a productive way.
Granted, this won’t always work. Some people are genuinely toxic and you would do well to avoid them as much as possible. But you can’t really know that for sure until you’ve given them and yourself the opportunity to communicate in a healthy way and to build some type of workable relationship. Your choice in how you interpret others’ behaviors and your approach to interactions with them—the way you carry yourself, your expressions, tone of voice, and word choices—carry a lot of power. Don’t dismiss that power.
Photo of frustrated man courtesy of Shutterstock.