When faced with the prospect of meeting with a confrontational employee, the project manager of a New Hampshire insurance company heaved a sigh. Not again, he thought to himself. Every conversation with this guy is a struggle.
He decided to use the meeting as an opportunity to shift perspective and try a new approach. He began by imagining that the employee had good intentions but was a bit rough around the edges. He considered that maybe if he aligned with the employee, he might be better able to direct him. First, he arranged the office chairs so that instead of face to face, they were at oblique angles and generally facing the same direction. Then he took a few deep breaths and opened the door.
The employee began by stating with intensity all that was going wrong with the project. The manager’s initial reaction was to resist the attack, but he refocused his attention on listening and understanding and sat quietly for a while. Instead of coming back with answers or a rebuttal, he found himself asking the employee what he thought the real nature of the problem was and what actions he would suggest to solve it. The confrontational atmosphere diffused and gave way to a sense of collaboration. The two were aligned physically in their chairs and now conceptually in the way they approached the problem. The change the manager made in himself turned out to be very effective, and both manager and employee began to work on solving the issues facing the project.
From Tormentor to Teacher
It’s hard to like everyone. Some colleagues are great partners; we know their style and blend easily with them. We “dance well together.” With others we always seem to be out of step. We wonder, How can they be that way? or What makes them tick? Or worse – we don’t care; we just want to be as far away as possible.
The problem is we still have to work with these people, and our reactivity in their presence gives them a kind of power over us. However, by seeking to understand the opponent, we take the initiative. At worst, we learn something. At best, we may turn them into an ally and improve the quality of the work environment.
But how do you turn a tormentor into a teacher? Begin by asking yourself some questions about who they are and why they behave the way they do.