No one completes his/her career unscathed by a difficult co-worker. For example, let’s say a difficult colleague accuses his co-worker of something extreme. If the accused, let’s call her Lilith, tries to defend herself (a natural response), the accuser (let’s call him Adam), may interpret the defensiveness as, “You are wrong for feeling that way.” Adam will then become even angrier at having his feelings invalidated. The real issue—whatever fear Adam has—would not be addressed. So nothing would be resolved.
Never begin with the facts…in Adam’s world, feelings are all that are important right now. By addressing Adam’s feelings first, Lilith will be able to share her version of reality at a time when Adam is more open to hearing it. In the example that follows, notice how Lilith allows Adam to fully express his feelings before she presents the facts as she sees them.
Adam: (angrily) You are disrespectful.
Lilith: You seem angry and upset.
A: I’m just mad! I’m going to write you up and tell the HR people.
L: No one wants to be disrespected. It sounds like that’s what you think I do. You have a right to your own feelings and opinions. I see things differently, though, and I also have a right to my feelings and opinions. The way I see things, I am quite busy all day and to have met your request within 24 hours was beyond what I thought was possible.
A: You were disrespectful to me in front of your colleagues and also when we were alone! (Style Differences: Direct communication vs. Indirect communication, Low Context vs. High Context; and Hierarchy vs. Egalitarianism). You laughed at me and snarled that you weren’t going to do what I had asked you to do. (Notice: Misconstruing events denotes a high propensity for unresolved issues of lack of appreciation, devaluation, and abandonment).
L: I know you don’t like to be disrespected. You have a right to your opinion. It hurts to have people making gestures that appear unappreciative. (Note: There is no admission of guilt). We can all relate better to those who focus and commend us on what we did well, right?
A: (calmer) Yeah. But I wish you didn’t laugh at me. (A “but” usually negates what precedes it).
L: (understandingly) Yes, I know you don’t like it.
Notice that Lilith reflected Adam’s feelings without agreeing that laughing is the same as being disrespectful. Of course it’s frustrating to be the subject of wild accusations that don’t make any sense. It’s not fair. Lilith may return to her desk and grit her teeth with a knot inside her stomach. She may wish that Adam worked somewhere else. But, she has expressed her own opinions and observations without invalidating Adam’s.
Adam threatened instead of questioning behavior. His childlike behavior brings about very real adult consequences. You cannot expect adultlike behavior from someone who is momentarily incapacitated from rage or fear; or, be prepared to expect more threats and counteraccusations.
Defense mechanisms, such as projections, rages, criticism, and blaming, may be attempts to get you to feel their pain for them. When you assertively redirect the pain back to your difficult colleague so s/he can begin to deal with it, you are breaking a contract that you didn’t know you signed. Naturally, your difficult colleague will find this distressing. Adam may make a countermove—this is an action designed to restore things to the way they were. Adam may enlist allies, for example, to pressure you. Countermoves also help people justify their actions, both to themselves and to you, because in his mind, it makes his countermove acceptable—even noble.
- Don’t judge the person’s feelings, deny them, trivialize them, or discuss whether or not you think they are justified.
- Show your colleague you are hearing what s/he is saying. (attentiveness)
- State and restate your colleague’s feelings for him/her to identify that that’s what is really going on; dig beneath the surface for feelings that may not be as obvious (many people have difficulty understanding what their own listening filter is).
- Ask the difficult colleague if your perceptions are correct. They want to be heard, and not neglected, which may be the real issue.
- Resist the temptation to justify, over-explain or debate. An appropriate response to an accusation would be: “I understand that you feel this way, and I see it differently.” Repeat this as often as necessary.
- Get an Organization Development practitioner involved, if necessary.
Let’s be real here. These recommendations will only assuage your co-worker momentarily, they will not fix him/her. What paraphrasing / active listening accomplishes is that this approach spares you from further fueling an already negative situation. Most likely Adam has had several previous colleagues suffer from this same projection of blame, while he holds zero accountability, because in Adam’s mind HE is the victim. Much like serial killers, a pattern will eventually emerge and be detected by others around him.
Adam, how do you like them apples?
Rossina Gil, MSOD, MAIS, is a Leadership and Organization Development Practitioner, and the founder of Corporate Looking Glass – a diverse consultancy of OD experts and strategic thinking partners. Visit us at CorporateLookingGlass.com.
©Rossina Gil, 2014
Paul Mason; Randi Kreger, Stop Walking on Eggshells (heavily adapted from). Raincoast Books: Oakland, CA. 2010.