There’s always that one person. The person who gets under your skin. The two of you just clash. Which, under normal circumstances, doesn’t matter. You could just ignore each other and go on with your life – except you work with this person. Urgh. What do you do? Live in misery; going to work knowing it’s going to be another frustrating experience? Not a great option long term.
Or, maybe there’s someone who you actually like. Someone who is a great friend except your conversations feel like they are stuck on repeat because you don’t discover new topics anymore or there’s tension between the two of you. It’s officially a friendship/co-worker/family member/partner rut.
See, every relationship creates a pattern, a soundtrack. In the early stages of a relationship we are curious. We navigate connections enthusiastically finding common ground. We are on our best behavior; we make an effort and then we get comfortable. Urgh, the dreaded comfort zone. The ho-hum, predictability of how an interaction will go before it even starts. Sometimes that’s positive. Sometimes, that’s negative.
So, what to do?
The answer is the same if you want to infuse life into a positive relationship with someone you choose to have in your life or if you want to change the interactions with someone you are forced to work with on a daily basis.
For the purposes of this article, let’s focus on the negative relationship because that’s likely why you’re reading.
There’s lots you could do that won’t help or will backfire making matters worse. For example, you could complain behind a person’s back, or silently resent the rut building additional animosity that you bring into every interaction. Another option is to run to the boss and have them give the other person a slap on the wrist. Yeah, that’ll help. (Insert sarcastic tone here.)
The frustrating part of this situation is that there is very little you can do. You can’t change the other person’s behaviour. On a rare occasion a come-to-Jesus conversation will successfully diminish the intensity of the clash for a short stint, but generally within a week or two, the difficult co-worker and you are back to your old negative routine.
Short of quitting your job, what can you do to shift the toxic pattern?
The answer is to change the soundtrack.
The only way you can influence the soundtrack is to choose to change it. And to do that you have to change.
What? I realize you’ve done nothing wrong and I understand YOU are not the problem – it’s all on them. Even so, change.
Change your reaction. Change your approach. Change your emotional input into the situation. Change your snarky eye roll during the team meeting. Change your resistance to their existence. Change the water-cooler conversation with others complaining about the person. Change one thing at a time until something clicks and your relationship changes.
I get it. It sucks to have to be the one to change. It’s a lot of work. And, if you want to have a more harmonious work experience with this person then it’s your only option. There is nothing you can do to make them change and waiting for them to take responsibility and see the light will take much longer than you, a high-achieving professional will tolerate. So, do what’s within your control and change. Even if that means finding a way to accept their behavior so it doesn’t interrupt your workday enjoyment - maybe that's the only change you need to make; though not likely.
Think of it like a game. Not in a manipulative way; in a curious way. Get curious about how another human responds to you when you react differently than they expect. Invite them into the fold. Get curious about how different triggers incite a different response. Is there something that irritates the other person? Great. Uncovering that tidbit could be the secret to creating a more harmonious work environment.
As I type this, I can already feel the resistance – because I’ve talked about this with a lot of professionals over 14 years of speaking and coaching. People ask, why do I have to make the concessions? Why can’t they just be more professional? Well, because you are taking the high road. You are choosing to make your interactions better. You want better which means change is your responsibility. They seem to be tolerating the status-quo so either you change, or the situation stays the same. Period. That’s it.
Changing a relationship soundtrack doesn’t happen in an instant. It may not work on your first couple of attempts. Keep going. Don’t forget, even if you change your reaction, they are still playing the old soundtrack. Just stay curious. How long will they take to catch on to the fact that you’re changing? How long will they take to accept that they too can change and be less toxic in their approach?
You may see a glimmer of hope one day and then be disappointed the next. That’s okay. Stick with what works and do more of that. Eventually, when you change, the relationship must change. Changing one part of an equation must impact the final answer. It’s simple math. As a writer and a speaker, it’s the only math I will ever share – it's absolute. Be the variable. You can keep shifting until you figure out what gives you the answer you want.
Each relationship has a soundtrack. Some are good, positive and empowering. Others suck the enthusiasm out of you. Embrace the soundtrack if it’s working, and if it isn’t, change it.
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