Meeting Them Where They Are: Navigating Tough Work Relationships

January 2, 2016
Mary Jo Asmus

Visualize someone at work who gets under your skin. Do you remember all of the (often small) things they’ve done that bother you? Your tendency may be to carry someone’s habits (the ones that you don’t like) and forget that they are capable of something more.

You may have to work closely with them; they may be a peer, direct report or even your boss. What happens when you’re in conversation together? Your mind is chattering away, making less-than-complimentary judgments about their intent or ability. Your emotions are running high based on past history, and your thoughts are somewhere else making up unflattering stories about them while you aren’t listening to anything they say.

This damaging thought process has put you right back in a past where there is little hope for a change in your relationship. You feed on it a little bit (it’s not entirely unpleasant, a quirk of your shadow side), but you’ve recognized that you’d really like to change how things are. You know that if the relationship stays stuck in the past, the work you do together will too.

There’s magic in that desire to change, and it’s the beginning of snapping out of the negative thoughts you hold on to. The next step can change the way you see them and upgrade your relationship (and consequently, your leadership).

This is the secret to a better relationship: Meet them where they are. Forget about the past and all the irksome things they’ve done. Start over by:

Forgiving them for those things they do that bother you. Forgiveness is an inside-out process, and you have to do the inside work to let those things go and help your relationship (and work together) flourish. Although they may not change their habits, you can change yourself and how you react to them through forgiveness. Trust that when you forgive, everything else has potential to change in a relationship.

Discovering what’s good. Let go of the negative memories and look for their strengths. Listen and show curiosity; discover their admirable qualities, what they do well, and what they can contribute to the relationship and work you’re doing. Let them know what you noticed, and ask them how they can use those qualities, and how you can help them to shine.

Seeing something new in the way they are now and the future potential they have. The old habits that got under your skin before may still crop up, but they’re now overridden by possibility. In that future, your relationship flourishes and great things can happen as you support each other over every hurdle that comes your way.

For now, you’re meeting them were they are, and the difference it makes in your relationship and their performance is magical. The bothersome past is gone, and you can start over because seeing potential in others is something the best leaders do well.

More From Mary Jo Asmus

Why it Doesn’t Need to be Lonely at the Top

Curiosity: a Pillar for Great Relationships at Work

Renewing and Nourishing Work Relationships

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive/leadership coach whose work spans decades of making a difference in the lives of hundreds of executives, leaders and teams in Fortune 500, mid- and small- sized business, governments and nonprofits. She focuses on facilitating individuals and teams from first-line supervisor to the C-suite to create, develop, and influence the relationships that can make them extraordinary.

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