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When there’s someone we don’t like to work with, many people tend to pursue the strategy “avoid avoid avoid”. But this usually doesn’t work, and can often backfire by making you look like the immature one in the relationship.

So how do you deal with someone you’d rather not see at work?

Unfortunately, we have to learn to love them, because it’s one of the best ways to overcome their terrible tendencies. This week, you’re going to learn two of our very favorite strategies for flipping a relationship.

Relationship strategy #1: getting along with anyone, even if they’re terrible

There is no doubt that your “office enemy” has earned their reputation. Whatever they did (or do) to get under your skin order to work with difficult people, you’ve got to be able to let go of past offenses for the sake of avoiding new ones.

In other words, you have to be willing to see your difficult coworker as a real person with real preferences and pressures that drive their behavior. You don’t just have to make them like you; you also have to be willing to let go of being mad at them and seeing them as “just difficult”.

Here’s how you can do it:

Create interactions and find some common ground. As we learned last week, one really important tactic for dealing with difficult people is to focus on spending more (not less!) time with the most challenging but important people in your life. This should be your go-to tactic at the first sign of trouble in any work relationship.

(Especially if you are new to a team or management role, it is important to nip bad feelings in the bud before they can have seriously damaging effects.)

It’s easy to write off or stay mad at someone you don’t know well. It’s harder to do that with someone you’ve had coffee with every week or worked closely with on a project.

Ask about projects you can assist them on, or ask that they help you with one of your assignments. Take them to coffee, or eat lunch together one day. Stop by their office to say hello in the morning. Ask them if they watched the same TV show you watched last night.

The way you spend your time together matters less than the simple fact that you spend time together at all. It’s all about building those good vibes and positive interactions. :)

Find things to like about them. Even self-centered jerks can have a soft side; you just have to find it. Seriously, finding even one thing you like about a person can completely change your dynamic with them.

I once had a boss who was super disorganized and yet also incredibly demanding; it was so frustrating to try to figure out what he wanted. But I had to admit; he was also really funny sometimes.

Acknowledging this thing that I liked about my manager made it possible for me to see through my frustration at other times. The more I focused on the positive, the more willing I was to work with him on improving the negatives. I could remember, “Yes, I like you. I want to help you solve this problem,” instead of just getting mad and fuming quietly.

See the whole person. It can be really satisfying to see someone as a caricature of all their worst features. It makes it so easy to blame them for problems! But if you want your relationship to be better, you have to acknowledge they are only human — they have good qualities, they have bad qualities, they make mistakes, and they also are capable of at least some great things.

Being able to give a person credit for wins (and cut them slack for fails) makes you stronger and a better leader yourself. The more you understand who they are and what drives them, the more you’ll understand their decisions and actions, even if you don’t agree with them.

Try to think of them like you would your best friend in the office. When you are friends with someone, you’re more willing to see their side of things. Even if they mess up, you’re quicker to attribute it to a bad day or outside circumstances (rather than them just not being very good at their job, for example).

Try seeing your difficult peers through these lenses for a day. Of course, your friend might not do the same things your difficult coworker does, but try to apply the same level of understanding and openness to your judgments of this person for an entire day. Being able to see their failures and successes in a different light might spark your ability to see them that way in the future.

Not everything is black and white; nobody is all perfect or all bad. Be willing to shake up your perspective for the sake of building better relationships.


Relationship strategy #2: kill ‘em with kindness.

What is this strategy all about? It’s about becoming this difficult person’s new best friend. Oh yes, you are going to make them like you, no matter how long it takes. You’re going to keep being friendly and helpful and present and interested in them until they have no choice but to stop being difficult and start being your ally.

This one is all about commitment and persistence. But let me tell you: it is effective!

Get to know them 1:1. Yes – the last thing you want to do is spend more time with someone awful, but actually, that kind of thinking is what we’re out to bust with this one!

Awful people aren’t just awful, but you have to get to know them better in order to find that out. Take this person out for coffee and don’t just grit your teeth and get through it; taking them out for coffee (or hanging out after work or working together on problems) is going to be your new favorite activity.

The more time you spend with a person, the better you see them as a complete person. And the more you see them as a real, complete person, the less difficult they will become. You’ll start to understand their eccentricities, pet peeves, passions, and all those little things that add up to a person’s personality. You’ll learn how to work with them.

Oh, and it has an added benefit – they’ll learn how to work with you too!

Go over and above to be kind. Science shows that it takes about 6 positive interactions to counteract 1 negative one. So if you’ve had a rough road so far with a coworker, it’s time to get your positive interaction quota up!

By getting to know them better 1:1, you should learn some things that matter to them a lot. Do they feel like they don’t get enough attention at work? Are they frustrated by lack of resources for a current project? Whatever their problems are, become the person who solves them – or at least makes them feel better – so they begin to see you as an ally.

Get them involved in the group. Difficult people tend to get isolated, so if you have a difficult person on your team and you’re not the only one who prefers to avoid them, make an effort to get them involved with the group. Even a simple invitation to lunch is a good start towards creating a more inclusive environment.

Think about it, if this person is being isolated because they are difficult – well, now they feel upset because they are isolated. It’s a cycle, where the farther they get from the group, the less incentive they have to make your lives easier or go out of their way to have good relationships with you.

So set a good example, and talk to them. Invite them to things, and talk to them at group functions. Become their ally and make it easier for them to rejoin your team.

Make it all about their preferences. We like things done our way; it’s human nature! However, you should try meeting your difficult coworker in their preferred style when you’re in relationship-repair mode. Make it easy for them to communicate with you.

If they prefer email conversations, send your big ideas that way. If they like to chat first thing in the morning at the office, come prepared with things you want to talk about. Get on their turf for the time being, and show you’re willing to meet them on their side.

Tell them about yourself too. A relationship is a two-way street, so don’t forget to share your own opinions and experiences while you’re building rapport with this person. Just because you’re working hard to become their friend doesn’t mean you have to be someone you’re not.

When you have a common experience or relevant story, share it with them! It will help them get to know and understand you better, which will make your relationship more balanced. The more they come to understand and appreciate you too, the better.

Don’t give up! Pursuing a “kill ‘em with kindness” strategy is all about just barreling through those negative feelings and refusing to let a relationship simply stay negative. Emphasis on: barreling through. It won’t always be easy, especially in the beginning.

After all, this difficult person has made it hard to be their friend; that’s why you’re using a strategy to get to know them! But you have to stick with it in order for it to work. It is by keeping it up that you will prove to the other person that you really are committed to having a better relationship with them.

Remember, you don’t have to be best friends and you won’t get to a 100% positive relationship overnight. Slow and steady wins this race.

This strategy isn’t about following someone everywhere they go in the office or being so friendly that it’s creepy. It’s about making positive moves, consistently and over time, so that this person realizes you are in it for the long haul. You aren’t going to stop being nice to them. You aren’t going to stop being on their team.

It doesn’t take forever, and when it works – well, you just earned an office ally that is going to be in it for the long haul too.

Tags: better leader, communication, relationships, Strategy, success, team,

2 Responses to “Work relationships: how to make your office enemy your new best friend”

  1. Jemma

    I work in a small office of just two of us, so gladly do not have this issue at work. However, I live with 3 people and one woman in particular is D.I.F.F.I.C.U.L.T. It is so true that spending more quality time with her makes her seem like a more dimensional (and not just pain in my ass) person. She still has habits that make me crazy. I remind myself that she doesn’t do these intentionally to annoy me and I definitely don’t have to take it personally. It’s not.

    • Kate Stull

      That’s one of the hardest parts of living and working with other people – even when they have the best intentions, the way they do things differently than we prefer can still get under our skin. It sounds like you are working hard to manage your own feelings about how this other person behaves; my other tip would be to take time to actively prepare yourself to interact with them (as much as you can). If you know you’ll be seeing them as soon as you walk in the door after work, for example, try first pausing and taking a deep breath, reminding yourself “it’s not personal”, and getting centered before interacting with them. It can help ease you into working with them, rather than their behavior coming as a shock to the system.

      Hope some of that helps. Keep it up! :)