No work environment is without disagreements. That’s normal. But every so often you find yourself working with someone you just don’t get along with at all. He doesn’t like you, that’s clear. And before long, you don’t like him either. If you’re working on the same project or reporting to the same manager, you can’t avoid him. He’s in meetings with you, and those meetings are spiked with extra tension simply because you guys don’t get along.
When this sort of situation persists, we may find ourselves talking to work friends about it. Basically, we want their agreement that our dislike of The Other Guy is justified, that we’re in the right.
We say things like, “Did you hear what he said? He’s a strange guy. What do you think is his problem?” and then we line up reasons that The Other Guy is wrong, peculiar, misguided, or unqualified.
We think to ourselves, How can he not know that? The guy’s an idiot, explaining to ourselves why we don’t get along. It’s his problem.
While it may be normal to think those things, it’s not very helpful. There’s no way forward for a troubled work relationship when each side thinks The Other Guy is the one with the problem.
Instead, here are a few things to try that might yield actual improvements.
1. Try to See Yourself from “The Other Guy’s” Perspective
Have you ever looked at yourself as if you were someone else looking at you? I’m guessing not. But try looking at you as if you were The Other Guy. First, you put yourself in his position, trying to imagine, for a moment, what’s it’s like to look at you with his eyes, and what it’s like to experience you from his vantage point.
What do you look like to him? How do you come across?
We give a lot of attention to our reputation at work. We spend time nurturing it, making sure people respect us, making sure we get promoted, that we land the interesting projects, get good performance reviews and raises. A good reputation shows that bosses and colleagues think well of us. This focus on professional reputation is typical, and even encouraged. But focusing on our own reputation keeps us from taking a hard look at how others see us. Instead, it keeps us focusing on our own good qualities, and on improving them. Our focus on reputation never looks at the negative.
If we want to improve our relationship with The Other Guy, or even just defuse the tension in shared meetings, we have to take a candid look at what we might be doing to provoke or disrespect or overlook The Other Guy. Because we’re probably doing something that is, or is contributing to, the root cause of the problem. If we stay with the mind that we’re blameless, we’re stuck.
2. Ask a Trusted Friend
It’s entirely likely that chronic dislike between a couple of colleagues hasn’t gone unnoticed by co-workers. If you’re up for what might be a hard dose of truth, and if there’s a co-worker you trust, you could ask him or her for an outside perspective on what the problem might be between you and The Other Guy.
I did that once myself. There was a colleague who didn’t like me. His name could have been Jim, though it wasn’t. Not important. Anyway, I don’t remember when it started, but I began to notice that he spoke to me abruptly, ignored me in the hallways, stiffened when I entered the room, and rolled his eyes in meetings at something I’d said when he thought I wasn’t looking – and sometimes when he thought I was. It was very clear he didn’t like me, and before long, I didn’t like him either.
I did all of the above, thinking What’s his problem? What a strange guy! I enlisted others’ opinions to validate my own. “Isn’t Jim weird?” I asked them.
But Jim and I had to work together. My boss, who was aware of the discord between Jim and me, assigned the two of us to a three-member committee. The third member was a trusted friend of mine, Jerry, whom Jim also liked. So I asked Jerry if, during our three-person meetings, he would observe the dynamics between Jim and me and tell me, if he could, what was wrong.
A few weeks into our committee work, Jerry came to see me and told me a hard truth.
“You run him over,” Jerry said. “That’s why he doesn’t like you. You don’t wait to hear what he has to say, you just talk, decide, and move on. He doesn’t want to be run over. He wants to be listened to.”
As soon as he said it, I knew it was true. I gulped, thanked him, and did some serious thinking about who I was at work and how it had led to this.
I’d like to tell you that I completely reformed after that, and that Jim and I became best friends, but that’s not what happened. But it was an “ah-ha” moment for me, one which I took to heart. I made some changes, and Jim and I got along slightly better after that, I think. Beyond the Jim situation, Jerry’s advice that day helped me in many ways.
Not everyone is willing to be as candid and helpful as Jerry was. And not everyone is willing to hear something terrible about themselves. Frankly, I don’t think I was ready. But Jerry was right, and I needed to hear it.
3. Relax Your Grip
If you’re holding tight to your opinion about The Other Guy, if you believe you’re justified in feeling the way you do, then everything he does reinforces your (low) opinion of him. However, consider that there may be more to him than you’ve imagined. The belief you’re holding on to so tightly – that he’s flawed and that’s why he doesn’t like you/shouldn’t work here, etc. – is only one aspect of him. Maybe he volunteer coaches inner city youth basketball on Saturdays. Maybe his wife has a debilitating illness that’s on his mind day and night. Take a step back and think about The Other Guy as a whole person.
For sure, the way you see him is not who he is. It’s just a part of who he is. He has problems – because who doesn’t? – and he may indeed have positive qualities and activities you know nothing about. Wrap your imagination around the idea that there’s more to The Other Guy, and try to come up with a more generous way of explaining the things you don’t like about him.
You can keep this little imagination exercise to yourself. Don’t tell anyone, just do it. It’ll improve your state of mind where he’s concerned, and that is the goal, isn’t it?
It’s Just a State of Mind
We give a lot of credence to our opinions of others, but when you think about it, our opinion about another person is just a state of mind, and a temporary one at that. There’s no court of law where our opinion (low or high) of someone else will be validated or vindicated. Our opinion is just how we feel – something we can control if we want to – and a difficult relationship with someone at work can feel terrible.
Who wants to feel terrible?
So improve it. Try to see your nemesis in a broader context. Try to see what role your habits and ways of being are playing into the situation. And maybe even ask a trusted work friend to give you some candid feedback.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.