In today’s high-performance workplace, even the smallest annoyances can shake the most confident souls. Challenges such as scheduling and technological problems are frequently the easiest to overcome. They are often expected and typically involve only impersonal, problem-solving skills. Conflicts with a team member, a team leader or even a valued patient, on the other hand, can elicit a far wider range of responses — from simple annoyance to questions of one’s own competence.
What makes interpersonal issues so challenging? Why is it that we bounce back so quickly from some situations and so poorly from others? And what can we do to quickly return to a normal, satisfying work relationship?
Responding vs. Reacting
Lori Biesiada, MS, PC, career counselor, helps clients understand the difference between two types of interpersonal challenges using a medical example. “Think of visiting a doctor with a common ailment. If the treatment went to work and you started feeling better right away, you are responding to the treatment. However, if that same treatment made you feel worse or gave you more pain, you are reacting to the treatment and require further help.” So it is with difficult people situations.
Situations requiring a response are typically seen as annoyances — sometimes large, sometimes small. They are perceived as a normal, although an undesirable part, of work relationships. They may be caused by personality quirks or due to situational events that will pass. There might even be a personality conflict, a conflict that may or may not be resolved. It may be a situation you can live with. In short, while annoying, there is a feeling that with the right approach and cooperation, the situation will be resolved or can be substantially minimized.
Reactive events are quite a different story. Here, there is a strong underlying emotional basis, perhaps going back to early childhood experiences. Finding someone falling into an old, interpersonal pattern is the major clue Biesiada looks for to assess whether a reactive response is present.
Some of the red flags Biesiada looks for include:
- Does the person use the same words to describe a current situation and a previous situation? In recalling childhood years, the person may say: It was “unfair,” others were “shown favoritism/ liked so and so better than me.” Or the person may say: “I was treated like an idiot,” he or she was “asking too much,” “I don’t know why I was picked on,” or, “she is such a tyrant.”
- Is the person having the same feelings now that he or she had previously? Is the person feeling deep self-blame, low self-worth, arrogance, prolonged anxiety, depression, or even a desire to sabotage a project?
- Is there a career pattern developing? Has the person left several jobs over the past few years over similar circumstances? Has he or she joined a work group with high expectations only to see them dashed? Does the person experience similar strong, negative feelings for people in specific organization positions… that is, team leaders, supervisors, co-workers? Are there certain individuals with whom the person finds it difficult to work, over and over again?
For both responsive and reactive situations, there are steps you and your team members can take to minimize or eliminate their effects, Biesiada says.
Working Through Reactive Events
These are the daily events faced by most people. You may be facing some reactive events, and chances are, members of your staff are.
Helpful steps to help you or a staff member work through a reactive event include:
- Determining if the situation will pass. Often, after realizing a mistake was made, a team member will apologize. Be gracious and accept the apology.
- If the situation continues, seeking alternative approaches. Confide in someone you trust and ask that person’s advice.
- Deciding whether to confront the individual. This involves trust and an emotional commitment. State: “When you (describe their behavior toward you), I feel like (share your feelings); is that what you intended?”
- If the trust just isn’t there or you are not willing to get emotionally involved, deciding whether you can live with the relationship.
When considering the preceding steps, a major consideration should be your career identity, or that of your staff member’s. The person facing the reactive event needs to ask himself or herself: “Am I doing what I love to do?” If so, it may well be worth salvaging or learning to live with an annoying situation. If not, your efforts may be better spent getting to the bottom of what you would really like to do.
Resolving Reactive Events
Resolving reactive events will take the most time and effort. The rewards, however, can be the greatest.
- Begin with the assumption that you and those around you are all adults. Adults try to do the best they can every day. They don’t always get it right, but they try. That’s what you are doing.
- See yourself as clearly as you can. This will take some time and willingness to learn. You may well learn things you didn’t think you wanted to know about yourself. Remember that your willingness to learn may have a great deal to do with your future job satisfaction and career achievements.
- Seek the help of a trusted friend, especially someone who knew your early family life, school or work career. Pay attention to the devastating moments. Look for patterns in the words you use, feelings you express, and behaviors you demonstrate. Be candid and honest. Listen to what your friend has to say. Don’t judge; accept all insights. Work together to identify patterns.
- Acknowledge what you have learned and move forward. Cultivate outside relationships. Learn the truth about trust. A wise person knows you can’t trust another person with everything. Develop a sense of whom to trust and with what. And, remember, we teach people how to treat us. Develop new ways to be treated.
For those really tough situations, Biesiada advises professional help. “If someone finds themselves dwelling on an issue, especially one that affects their personal, family, or work life, a call to a professional counselor is in order. While a next step in resolving an issue, it is often the first step in enhancing both personal and professional satisfaction.”