How to become glad-you’re-here with a challenging colleague

Quick recaps from the last two weeks:

Two weeks ago I talked about the power that comes to a leader who says by their behavior and their actions towards others, “I’m so glad you’re here.” Speaking this way is a powerful manner of exhibiting leadership.

Last week I pondered the question: What is it like when you don’t have that – “I’m so glad you’re here” feeling- about a key colleague.

This week: What can you do when you don’t have that positive “oh, I’m so glad you’re here” feeling towards someone, especially if they are an important colleague, a boss or person who works on your team. (Or, oh, yes, a spouse, kid, parent.)

The major point I made last week is: when you aren’t “glad to see” your colleague, it is almost always a reciprocal condition. If you’re not inclined to say, “I’m glad you’re here,” that person probably isn’t thrilled to see you either. And the compounding problem is that so often what we do is then blame the other. Yet we expect them to take responsibility. And we are often convinced they won’t change.

So, the result of thinking it’s their fault is: we have given away our agency and our power. We wait but expect nothing; or try something, extend some olive branch, only to be unsurprised that they ignore or disdain our noble effort. (I’ve played the mental game where I give them a trial opportunity, but I expect, and in a weird way, even hope that they don’t respond positively. And then their lack of positive response, or any response, proves how right I was.

Two things are essential when you are getting entrenched in a pattern that don’t want to say “I’m glad you’re here” to a key person. First, take back your agency. Don’t be a victim. Don’t be passive. Decide instead that you have freedom, you have capacity, and you will use those to not be bound by their bad behavior and/or your negative beliefs about them.

The second thing is to change your mind. I don’t mean forcefully change your opinion. I mean watch-and-change your mind. The goal here is to begin to inject positivity back into the relationship. The ultimate goal will be for you to work toward the optimal ratio of positive-to-negative communications, or a 5 to 1 ratio. But, first, don’t. Don’t act. Just observe. Observe yourself. Don’t begin communicating, because you can say the right things, but genuine human communication is not about the lyrics, like “you’re doing such a good job,” but it is about the music, which may sound fake, ambivalent, or half-hearted . . . which is probably what it is!

Instead, make two columns – positive and negative – for what you observe in their behavior. Literally draw them on paper, or minimally make a mental two-column list. Begin noticing your negative observations or thoughts about the other. Simultaneously, begin to look for positive things you could say. This is an exercise in simply observing your own mind. So, just note the criticisms of them that come to mind. And on the other side of the ledger: look (hard, if you have to!) for the positives that you might notice. Don’t get carried away with either. With the negatives, don’t indulge in stories about “there he goes again,” “he’s so selfish,” “she’s so controlling,” “Everything is always about her!” Just notice the thought. Don’t justify it. Don’t dispute it either. And don’t beat them or yourself up about it. Just notice! You might say to yourself, “huh, okay, that’s one negative.” It’s simply an observation about your thinking. For example, right here, right now, you might observe yourself thinking: “Dan says things over and over. :-).” Okay. Notice. Don’t prove. Don’t disprove. Don’t guilt yourself. Don’t hate Dan. Just, hmmm.

Likewise, you can treat the positive column, the good things the other does, says, or contributes. Just pay attention. Develop what the Zen folks call “beginner’s mind.” Just notice. You might notice how difficult or easy it is to see the good. Again, don’t get carried away with the ideas. Don’t argue with yourself if you see something positive, by thinking, “sure, but he or she does that okay, but they also do X Y or Z which are terrible.” Don’t push yourself for sincerity. If you believe the positive, you believe it. If not, that’s okay too. But the key thing is to not suppress the potential for the positive.

If you’re feeling good about these two steps – reclaiming agency and just noticing, then take one more step. Start to share a positive – or some positives – with them. Do so, only if you can sing the song and not just say the lyrics. Only if you believe yourself. And then, expect NOTHING in return. It’s a long game you’re playing.

And this is about making a fresh start.

You can regain agency, create positivity, begin to create space for honest expressions of your differences, but you’ve got to learn to watch and then manage your mind to

Lead with your best self.

  • Dan – Whew! You’re wading into deep and challenging waters here. It is so tough to take responsibility and act like a grown-up. Another one of your essays to print out and hang on my board as a reminder. Thanks.

  • There’s a lot of good sense in “fake it til you make it.” Not exactly what you’re saying, but not so far off, either.

  • Another possibility is that the negatives outweigh the positives, then what? Time to leave the relationship, the job, the situation? There is a period of time when we are trapped, and do not have agency, no matter what. We are a patient in the emergency department and must sign a form that we have no time to read or understand to consent to treatment under the conditions the hospital requires. And we get a doctor we are uncomfortable with. Or we have our investments at a company that makes mistakes and acts like it is no big deal when you are the one who has to repeatedly correct their mistakes. Or our car is wrecked in an accident and the insurance company is in charge, the way the insurance company was in charge when we were in the emergency department, and transferred to ICU. Or we are on a committee where somehow we are the one who does not get the memo, and there is a meeting without us. I know a former county commissioner who was intentionally not told of a meeting. I was on a county committee where the party who my committee wanted to have their books audited was invited by one of the commissioners to upset our plan to do the audit. The positives? The human is a tricky beast to understand. In your analysis above, I think we must always know that leaving the situation needs to be considered, but there are times we are trapped in the emergency department or with the insurance company being in charge of our lives.
    I think balanced thinking, which is what I see in your thinking above is a good thing. We can let our emotions take us to places where we think we are trapped, when we are not. Rational Therapy, going under other names like Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy is the same process, or a similar process. Being realistic about your situation is key to success. Does the other person ALWAYS put you down? We hope not, and probably not, so think of the times they have supported what you did or said, or if not supported it, did nothing to delay it, and did nothing to criticize it.

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