Whether you’re back in an office setting, following a hybrid schedule, or still logging into work from home, you’re likely familiar with one of the more thorny aspects of what it means to be a working person: how to navigate interpersonal dynamics with co-workers. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most common problems we hear about as executive coaches from our clients.
While managing work relationships has always been complex, virtual work has only made our professional relationships more challenging to maintain. Eighteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we see many frayed relationships, resulting in impatience and frequent tension.
Justin and Stacy were co-workers who initially enjoyed a fondness and professional respect for each other. They shared a passion for good design and appreciated approaching problems from a place of creativity and innovation. In the advertising firm where they worked, they frequently bounced ideas off of each other and sought reciprocal support for client projects.
Things flowed, pre-pandemic, when they worked together in person. Slowly, though, over the past year and a half of virtual work, their relationship changed. Stacy, a parent to a toddler home once daycare closed, worked diligently to balance parenthood with her design role. Meanwhile, Justin, a single man without children, struggled to understand why Stacy continually delivered less exciting work than she had previously and was less available for calls.
Justin tried to be patient and understanding with Stacy, but recently their relationship deteriorated. Justin had been charged with leading a professional development training workshop for his team. Just a few days before the workshop, Stacy emailed Justin to say that she couldn’t attend due to childcare issues. Justin felt angry after having put weeks of work into designing the training. Stacy felt equally angry; she believed that Justin didn’t appreciate what it meant to be a working parent during a pandemic. Slowly a distance grew in their relationship and they started to complain to colleagues about each other.
Just like Stacy and Justin, most problems we perceive as professional in nature actually have a personal, or emotional root cause. Only by maturing psychologically do we have the chance to evolve professionally.
Interpersonal tensions give us a tremendous opportunity to grow up at work. Informed by this premise, we offer some tips for managing interpersonal tensions with colleagues:
- If you’re experiencing interpersonal tensions at work, start by looking in the mirror.
In keeping with what it means to maintain good relationship health at work or home, it’s deeply tempting to blame others for the problems that we’re experiencing. “If only they…” is a common start to how many of us articulate the issues that we’re having with others. While there may be some validity to this mindset, it’s flawed thinking. Start by noticing if you believe the other person is to blame. That’s your starting point.
Only when we slow down can we see how much blaming another person directly serves us since it distracts us from looking into our own role. If we wish to be emotionally mature, then we must first look first at our own role in any dynamic, even if it’s only a part of what’s happening.
We must all learn to take responsibility for what we’re doing, thinking, or communicating to others and we must start by looking at the assumptions and “projections” we’re making — that is, transferring our fears or wishes onto others, often related to past relationships in our lives. The core idea here is that we all have a part to play in every relationship dynamic, and we want to start by figuring out what our part is first.
- Notice when the past is present
Without knowing it, many of us are unconsciously playing out the scripts of our lives at work. We’re especially prone to playing out the parts of our lives that were traumatic or are unresolved. Until we make this unconscious dance more conscious, we’re essentially asleep to our actions and unaware of how our personal histories might be playing more dramatically into our work lives than we realize.
If, as children, we didn’t get proper attention or “attunement” from our parents, we may project (or transfer) images of our parents onto our colleagues or managers. We may feel extra aware when we don’t get the recognition we crave from them. Or, if as children, we felt our parents invaded our psychic space and didn’t give us proper autonomy to make our own decisions, we might feel overly reliant on others or, conversely, resent others for wanting a say.
There’s no one way our histories play out at work — sometimes we might recreate the past or sometimes we may be reacting strongly to the past — but, at the risk of over-simplifying, when we don’t realize the past is present, and we’re operating from old, unresolved or unhealed psychological wounds (often from our childhoods or adolescence), we may be contributing much more to the interpersonal dynamics at work than we realize.
- Do something different
One of the best things we can do in an interpersonal conflict is to not repeat the past but to start doing things differently. We all have thought and behavior habits. In reality, we could all benefit from practicing new habits that have been underdeveloped. Put most simply, this often amounts to what Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says is doing something different.
If your tendency in the face of conflict is to avoid it or retreat, one of the best things you can do as you support your emotional maturity is to step toward the disagreement and voice your honest feelings and thoughts to others.
Alternatively, if your habit is to be reactive and to come out swinging, then for you, being more quiet, reflective, and curious is the way to go.
In the case of Stacy and Justin, their dynamic changed dramatically when they practiced these three steps. Through coaching, they came to realize that each of them was playing a role that made their tensions tricky to resolve.
While Stacy was truly struggling to manage parenthood and work, as a child in her family she was accustomed to suffering in silence, and she believed that Justin should have known how hard things were for her without her saying so. Only when Stacy was open, honest, and forthcoming toward the conflict and armed with a heartfelt apology was Justin able to hear her. Stacy able to take responsibility for her role in how the relationship had suffered.
Meanwhile, Justin didn’t understand what the last year and a half were like for Stacy. He had his own habit of being more self-absorbed in his relationships — he’d received this feedback from an ex-boyfriend recently. Instead of acknowledging his own disappointment that Stacy wasn’t as available, he slowly seethed and started gossiping to others about her, a habit that developed in adolescence when he felt rejected by others. The mature stance would have been to talk to Stacy directly about his concerns and to practice greater empathy for her untenable situation. Only when he changed his habit and stopped gossiping, acknowledged that he felt hurt that she canceled her workshop participation, and expressed that he missed Stacy did their dynamic change.
Because both Stacy and Justin were willing to look in the mirror and do their own inner work, their relationship was able to improve again at an accelerated pace. After a few conversations and with the help of some coaching, they made commitments to each other about how they wished to move forward. The first commitment was an agreement to make time to speak with one another if things didn’t feel right. It may sound simple, but just this commitment can do a world of good for anyone in a relationship that matters to them.
Written by Yael C. Sivi.
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