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Relationship gone sour

How to fix a work relationship gone sour

Sometimes you get stuck with someone at work. It may be with your colleague, threatened by your skills, or with a superior unwilling to acknowledge your good ideas, or with a subordinate who undermines you. Whatever is happening, this could be catastrophic for your career, and for your group or organization.

What can you do to turn the relationship around? Is it possible to start anew?

The good news is that research by Susan David, a founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching, shows that the most strained relationship can be repaired.

Fixing a relationship takes serious effort. Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership and organizational change at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, has written an article Make your enemies your allies in which he says that ‘the hard work is often worth it, especially in a work environment where productivity and performance are at stake’.

Being with a difficult person is perceived as difficult. A difficult person can make you defensive, exhausted, drained, fearful, miserable, angry, unhappy. You are left with no time and no energy. The cost of resolving conflict is small relative to the high cost of leaving conflict unresolved. Unresolved conflict can be toxic to both you and your organization.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is ‘Am I effective at dealing with difficult people at work?’ If the answer is ‘I am not really dealing with it very well’ then read on.

I am going to offer you a way to look at the situation with a different pair of glasses. You can learn to better deal with difficult people in your life by focusing on your response. It is not as difficult as it sounds, but it will take work.

1. You are not alone in this.

Did you know that in a study of employees from nine countries, the average number of hours spent per week on workplace conflict varied from 0.9 to 3.3 hours? Most conflict involving people at work revolves around unfulfilled needs, primarily the psychological need for control, recognition, affection, and respect.

ACTION CALL Watch this video on Maslow?s Hierarchy of Needs.

2. Know who you are and decide where your boundaries are.

At what point does someone become a difficult person for you? How is that person being difficult? List the behaviours. What is important here is to get clarity of what ‘being difficult’ means for you and at what moment the behaviours go beyond your boundaries and trigger your reaction. You need to have complete clarity on the list so that you can use it in the difficult conversation you are going to have, as the person may ask you to give specific examples to understand your perception. Yes, it is all about perception.

ACTION CALL List the behaviours that are triggering the tension.

3. Prepare to engage in a difficult conversation.

Unless you speak with your colleague, the dynamic of your working relationship is not going to improve. Having a one-to-one away from the office might well help both of you. A neutral place is key for you both to feel more at ease and confident to talk to each other without having your colleagues watching what you are doing or saying.

It?s not about blaming your colleague or pointing out who is right and who is wrong. It’s about recognising what the problem is. It’s about taking off the professional mask and explaining how you want to work going forward.

ACTION CALL Introduce a discussion of things you and your rival have in common.

4. Use the GROW model for your conversation.

GOAL SETTING: what is the aim of this discussion?

REALITY: what is happening now? (what, where, when, who, how much, how often). Be precise if possible.

OPTIONS: what could you do to change the situation?

WILL: what option or options do you choose?

ACTION CALL Map out the conversation and watch this video on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

5. Choose your words carefully.

Use expressions such as ‘it seems like’, ‘it sounds like’, ‘it looks like’, and not ‘I am hearing that’ because using ‘I’ gets people’s guard up.

ACTION CALL Practise using those expressions everyday so that they become part of your vocabulary.

6. What opportunity is this conflict giving you?

Everything happens for a good reason in life. See this little bump on the road as an opportunity that this conflict or tension is giving you. There could be at least four opportunities:

  • Better work outcomes and improved performance.
  • The opportunity to learn and grow.
  • The opportunity to improve the work relationship.
  • Job satisfaction.

ACTION CALL Think about your own opportunities.

6. Listen, Listen, Listen

The legendary management consultant Peter Drucker¬†once said that ‘the most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said’. This has always resonated with me as a Leader and as an Executive and Organizational Coach. Today it is a challenge to manage the fast pace of the workplace. We are all busy with full agendas and back-to-back scheduled meetings. I have often wondered how this agile working in the VUCA world¬†impacted on our listening skills and on our skills to assess what was not being said in a conversation.

Sometimes in a conversation we can be so busy thinking about what we want to say next that we are not fully listening to what the other person is saying, and we are missing out even more on what is not being said. That can lead to a conversation with no impact.

One study at?UCLA?indicated that up to 93% of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7% by the words we used, 38% by voice quality, and 55% by nonverbal communication. So nonverbal communication serves as the single most powerful form of communication. As a result, we need to be sensitive to the power of emotions and thoughts that are communicated nonverbally. We can learn to listen with our eyes.

ACTION CALL Focus on nonverbal cues when you are talking to someone. What are those telling you?

7. Develop a resolution together.

Once you have engaged in a discussion, find a common purpose to address and be solution focused (e.g. we have different ways of doing things but we both get them done effectively).

ACTION CALL Brainstorm a possible common purpose.

8. Manage your emotion.

During the conversation, it may well be that the other person will say things that you do not agree with. Be silent and listen. Silence can be creative, it gives rest, and brings balance and focus. Silence can be restorative. Silence is an active presence. Have some empathy and try to understand the other person?s way of seeing things.

ACTION CALL Practise being silent when someone is talking to you. Do not interrupt.

9. Say Thank you.

The person who is sitting in front of you has talents just like you and that same person has chosen to talk things through with you. This is about courage. This is a risk as well. Press stop and pause and say thank you. Thank you does not cost anything but can mean the world to someone else. What do people around you do well every day that you might be taking for granted? Make space in your daily life to wish someone well, to say thank you, to praise. Give and be generous.

ACTION CALL Think about ways to say thank you.

10. Time.

It will take time for the relationship to heal. What is important is how you interact after the one-to-one. Be caring and compassionate. Be kind. Be respectful. Authenticity is magnetic.

ACTION CALL Be patient.

This blog on How to fix a work relationship gone sour gives you an opportunity to think about how you can change that relationship. Thank you as ever for stopping by. What do you think of what you’ve read? I hope it’s helpful if you are thinking of looking for an Executive Coach who does virtual coaching. Feel free to comment below or Tweet me @NadinePowrie with any comments or email me at

It’s good to talk. I’ve just opened up new offers for virtual coaching in my diary. This is in response to my current clients’ feedback. You may be interested in my Masterclasses.

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