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Dealing With Difficult Colleagues: Part 2

Education World is pleased to present this professional development resource shared by Dr. Jane Bluestein, an expert in relationship-building, positive school climate and effective instruction. Don't miss Part 1 of this article.

Although there is much involving interactions with others that will be outside your control, here are some additional things you can do to minimize the potential for problems at work.

Validate Their Reality

If a colleague approaches you in a state of emotional overload, his body is probably filled with stress hormones and locked into a fight-or-flight response which, neurologically, doesn’t allow easy access to the more rational parts of his brain. Your defensiveness or impulse to fight back, as natural as that may be given the situation, is likely to escalate his meltdown and make it even harder for him to see a more reasonable point of view, much less work toward a satisfying resolution.

But imagine if you counter his diatribe with compassion and understanding: “Well of course you’re upset about that!” Communicating agreement may be one of the most disarming and powerful strategies you can employ in a stressful situation. (This technique can be especially valuable in dealing with someone who is sent to you, for example, someone working with you who doesn’t want to be there.)

The better able you are to validate the reality of the other person’s experience—even if that reality is unreasonable or incomprehensible to you—the more quickly he can let go of his attachment to his hurt or angry feelings.

Set a Boundary

If you feel yourself getting upset or reactive, or if the other person’s behavior has escalated to a level of disrespect for which you are not prepared—here in particular, by the way, perception is everything—it is entirely appropriate to set a boundary to let that person know under what conditions he can continue this discussion: “I can see you’re upset about this. I want to hear what you have to say when you can talk to me without yelling. Let’s try this again in a few minutes.” And walk away. You don’t need to criticize him or make him wrong to communicate what he needs to do differently for this conversation to continue. (Clearly if he’s so agitated that he appears threatening or dangerous, insist on intervention, leave the room, or call for help.)

Fine-tune Your Discernment Skills

If someone comes to you for help and you have the information, time and inclination, by all means share what you’ve got. But you’ve probably noticed that people are generally resistant to suggestions that require major changes in their belief systems or behaviors until they are either curious or dissatisfied enough to be receptive to this information.

People invested in not changing, either because they firmly believe in what they’re doing or because they aren’t ready to question beliefs they’ve always held, will certainly see your best intentions to help as controlling and invasive. Until they are open to the possibility of doing things differently, even the most inquisitive will simply be looking for an opportunity to vent or complain. (You’ll be able to tell when this happens by how often they counter your suggestions with “Yeah, but . . .”). Further, your assistance may not be welcome, even when it’s requested, if your response is not the one the other person wants to hear.

Any of these situations can exhaust your energy, intentions, and good will. It may be more effective, when people are resistant to change or can’t take in the information you’re giving them, to accept where they are in their process and validate their reality. Watch where you devote your time and energy. Healthy interdependence requires boundaries and self-care, and often the best way to help someone move forward is simply to move forward yourself.

Don’t Engage in Toxicity

As much as possible, avoid or minimize your exposure to negative people, informa­tion or influences. Even in a positive and supportive environment, this can be tough! Any person or experience can have an impact on your energy. On days that you find watching the news or reading the paper to be devastating, switch channels or turn to the comics. Read or listen to inspirational material, either exclusively or in between more disquieting matter. Watch for that sense of obligation to spend time with people who are toxic and exhausting for you, even if they care about you, need you to be there for them or happen to be related to you.

Steer clear of gossip, even if it’s about you. (“That’s none of my business” is a useful response here. Be sure to change the topic or simply walk away.) Learn to say no, even at the risk of rejection or criticism. (Do you really want toxic people actively involved in your life? Sometimes being rejected or abandoned is actually not a bad thing!)

Reaching Out

When unable to resolve a conflict to your satisfaction, you may need to involve arbitration. Unfortunately, when you turn a problem over to someone else, you almost always turn over the responsibility for a solution to that person as well. The advantage is that the third party can usually see things more clearly and objectively and may suggest options that didn’t occur to either party. The disadvantage is that a mediator may solve the problem as quickly and conveniently as possible, or in accordance with his or her own agenda. There is always the chance that the third party will make things worse, so select your arbitrator cautiously.

Cut Your Losses

When our jobs—for whatever reasons—become a stressful bundle of obstacles and conflicts, we may need to reevaluate if the payoffs and benefits are more need-fulfilling than the negative aspects of the work. We all grow and change, and there are times to let go of an unrewarding friendship, relationship, or job.

If you are unable to pack it in immediately, one of the most powerful behaviors you can engage in for your own self-protection is the conscious act of exploring your options. Consciously choosing to stay in a situation in which you are well aware of the challenges, lack of support or other, more negative realities can eliminate constant disappointment and an exhausting sense of being victimized. Sometimes it can help to consider that you’re not trapped—you’re just not yet ready to make the move to a more satisfying alternative.

Believe in Your Own Deservingness

Self-care starts with a belief in its legitimacy. Of all the ingredients of healthy and positive relationships, this is perhaps the most important. Lacking an ability to take care of ourselves will inevitably compromise the quality of any relationship. Self-care reduces the chances that we will feel resentful, self-righteous or disempowered—feelings which often result from self-sacrifice—and enhances the quality of what we have to offer to others.

Until we believe we deserve to be treated with respect, modeling self-respect and maintaining boundaries with others will certainly be quite difficult. And it’s equally challenging to effectively help others to make self-caring choices if we have a hard time appreciating what we see in the mirror or making constructive choices in our own behalf.

Give a Little

Finally, look for opportunities to support others. As negative and emotionally stingy as our work culture can be, you probably know very few people who complain about getting too much recognition or appreciation. Even if you’re doing fantastic work in an unusually positive environment, it’s likely that you don’t get many strokes from your colleagues or supervisors (who, incidentally, probably need them just as badly). It’s certainly reasonable to ask for positive feedback, especially when you can be specific about the kinds of information that would be helpful to you. Whether or not you get the support you need, you certainly increase the odds by asking for what you want.

Never pass up a chance to let others know when they’ve done a good job. Make a habit of recognizing and appreciating others; however, don’t take this route unless you can do so without an agenda or expectation of getting something in return. Genuinely acknowledging a coworker’s skills or commenting on how effectively a colleague handled a difficult situation can not only make that person’s day, but also provide a badly needed boost in the face of job stress and emotional fatigue. Offering to give a colleague a bit of a break, or leaving an anonymous note or token of appreciation will add a great deal of positive energy to the culture of the workplace, and will probably leave you feeling pretty good at the same time. 

Remember that good relationships don’t happen by accident, and even in a really toxic environment, there are always things you can do to create your own little corner of safety and support.

Be sure to read Part 1 of this article.

Note: This article was originally written for EAP Digest and includes excerpts and adaptations of material from The Win-Win Classroom, by Jane Bluestein, Ph.D. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Related resources

Also from Dr. Bluestein:
Is Your School Emotionally Safe?
Accommodating Student Sensory Differences
Tips for Positive Teacher-Parent Interaction
The Art of Setting Boundaries
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 1
The Beauty of Losing Control, Part 2
Stressful Student Experiences: What Not to Do

About Dr. Bluestein

Dr. Jane Bluestein is a speaker, trainer and specialist in programs and resources related to relationship building, effective instruction and personal development.

She is an award-winning author whose books include Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, High School’s Not Forever, 21st Century Discipline, The Win-Win Classroom and many others. In addition, she has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Dr. Bluestein, formerly a classroom teacher, crisis-intervention counselor and teacher training program coordinator, currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Visit her Web site to access free resources, order books, read her blog and more.

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