An issue that comes up frequently in my work as a coach and teacher is how to improve a working relationship in which one person feels disappointed, irritated, or upset with the other. In my coaching practice this typically involves a pair of co-founders or two members of an executive team, and it occasionally occurs with MBA students in The Art of Self-Coaching, the class I teach at Stanford. (And I've had plenty of experience with colleagues, clients and students who feel this way about me.) While my comments here are by no means comprehensive, they lay out a set of steps you can take to begin to address a working relationship that's faltering or didn't get off to a good start:
An Invitation to a Conversation
Consider the points below as you reach out to the other person to, first, invite them to hold a conversation via a brief message, and then hold the conversation itself. Note the value of conducting this process in two steps. It can be tempting to try to address substantive issues in the initial message, but it may be difficult to insure accurate communication and avoid misunderstandings. And it can be equally tempting to launch right into the discussion the next time you encounter the other person, but that can cause them to feel unprepared and surprised, resulting in defensiveness rather than openness. Be sure that the other person feels some agency and control in the process; it should feel like an invitation, not a command. While you do want to insure that the conversation occurs, and this may involve employing some light pressure, if they agree to talk only out of a sense of duty or obligation they're less likely to be open to your message. You might gain their compliance, but you won't win their commitment.
The Medium Matters
It's important to select the right medium for the interaction. These choices will be determined by the culture in which the relationship exists and should reflect both parties' preferences, but I recommend email for step one and an in-person meeting (or, if necessary, a call) for step two. In contrast with texts or chat, email is more likely to be asynchronous, slowing down the exchange and allowing more time for reflection and for emotions to cool. And in-person conversations not only allow for more nuanced communication via tone of voice, facial expressions and body language, but also convey a heightened commitment to the relationship.
Set the Table
Before you actually meet, give some thought to the conditions that will best support a productive conversation. These include the meeting's timing, duration and location, and even such details as your physical proximity to each other. It's easy to overlook factors like this, but a little planning and foresight can have a significant impact on a conversation's effectiveness. At the very least, be sure that you'll both be in the right frame of mind for a potentially difficult interaction--trying to force it when one of you is distracted or stressed may make things worse.
In both your initial message and at the outset of the conversation, start by expressing your own motivation. The other person may not even be aware that there's a problem, in which case they may be confused or even misinterpret your motives. Be explicit about your investment in the other person, your hopes for the relationship, and your desire to make the most of the opportunity to work together. When we're unhappy with someone, we can jump very quickly to feedback about their behavior, but that may be less useful than conveying your own goals (and may even be counterproductive if it's perceived as criticism.)
Curiosity and Empathy
It’s essential to be curious and empathetic about what the other person might be experiencing, rather than leaping to any assumptions and judgments about the motives for their behavior. We possess a powerful "narrative engine" that compels us to quickly make sense of any situation we don't understand--we're betting that it's safer to have an explanation, even a highly speculative one, than to wait for more information. As a result it's easy for us to make assumptions that explain behavior we don't understand or dislike, but it's also easy to be wrong, particularly because it's so difficult for us to envision missing data.
Intent vs. Impact
With this in mind, note the difference between intent and impact. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt and assume that their intentions are good and they also want the relationship to succeed, but they’re unaware that the impact of their behavior is having the opposite effect. Also, note that you can only speak to their behavior and its impact on you--not their intentions, which you can guess at but can't know for certain. (This is why leading with curiosity is such a helpful stance.)
Feedback and Stress
Given our increasing emphasis on the value of interpersonal feedback, we can fail to appreciate what a stressful experience it can be to receive feedback, and it’s important to take this into account. Feedback is useful only to the extent that it's welcome, either because it's been explicitly requested, or because it's a tacitly acknowledged aspect of the relationship. Even under these circumstances be mindful of the potential for your feedback to raise the other person's stress levels and derail the conversation. And in the absence of a mutual agreement to exchange feedback, it's advisable to establish one before simply diving in. This need not require a separate conversation, but even just a few minutes discussing the role you both want feedback to play in your relationship can set the stage for a more productive exchange.
Finally, remember that there's no need to resolve all of your concerns in this one conversation. The necessary first step is simply letting the other person know that there's a problem; once you're both aware of this you can begin to diagnose the causes and consider solutions, but it may take several conversations to get into alignment. Succumbing to the pressure to reach closure now is likely to cause you to push too hard, too fast and miss the signs warning you to slow down and yield. Think of it as an ongoing dialogue rather than a one-shot effort, and aim to end each conversation eager to have the next one.
To be clear, by no means have I perfected the art of developing productive working relationships, and given the number of people I see in my practice and at Stanford, the odds are that at any given moment someone's unhappy with me. (This is less likely with clients, but it does happen; it's more common with colleagues and students, and I've come to accept this as a function of these particular relationships.) A benefit of this dynamic is that I'm continually practicing the steps above and expanding my comfort zone in the process.
Photo by Ruth Hartnup. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.