It’s the sad truth, but not every relationship gets off to a good start. One coworker might scowl every time you walk by, or another colleague in your networking group may be consistently aloof. For no clear reason, they’ve decided they don’t like you—and if you want a more comfortable work environment, it’s up to you to change the dynamic. As I discuss in my new e-book Stand Out Networking, when a friend or professional acquaintance seems frustrated with you for no reason, it’s possible that they are feeling underappreciated. The best thing you can do for them—as a friend and as a professional contact—is to show them that they are important. Renowned psychologist Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, told me about two ways to do this.
First, give honest compliments. It may not be easy, especially if the person has been distancing themselves from you for a while. But if you’re objective, they probably have some qualities you admire. If you take a positive action and compliment them, it may break the ice and make them reevaluate their perceptions of you.
Second, ask for their advice. Cialdini notes this strategy—which involves asking for their professional advice, book suggestions, etc.—comes from founding father Benjamin Franklin, a master of politics and relationship building. The reason it works so well is that when the people who help you consider their actions, they draw a conclusion from it—that they must actually like you. This is the “rule of commitment and consistency,” a surprisingly common phenomenon in psychology. Once the rule is in play, says Cialdini, you have the basis for friendly interaction. You can return the favor and build a real relationship.
Cialdini’s advice makes you vulnerable, to a certain extent; you’re explicitly making a point of deferring to someone who may not like you. But if you’re ever going to change the relationship, you have to be willing to take that chance.
It also pays to examine your own behavior. Diana McLain Smith, author of The Elephant in the Room: How Relationships Make or Break the Success of Leaders and Organizations, says that sometimes conflict is created by our own unconscious behaviors. “There’s not a person on the face of the earth who is not partly a captive of their history,” she says. “And that’s not a Freudian psychodynamic notion—it’s simply about where we learn how to operate. We learn in our families, in our schools, with our peers as kids. We figure out how the world works, and it becomes second nature as how we make sense of the world.” When that view of the world conflicts with someone else’s, we often are unaware that the conflict is because of our approach to life—we think the other person is being irrational.
So what’s the solution? She says every professional needs to ask themselves three questions: “How do I behave as a leader? What leads me to behave this way in the moment? And what gave rise to that? That self-awareness allows you to master yourself”—and hopefully find a way to work with the person who’s frustrated with you.
Additionally, you have to take responsibility for how your own behaviors may actually stimulate more of the behavior you dislike in other people. “You may be focusing on another person’s downside—and then starting to behave in ways that exacerbate it,” she says, citing the example of a energetic, charismatic person who may feel compelled to “fill the vacuum” left by a quieter, more cerebral colleague. But instead of complementing each other, they drive each other into more exaggerated roles, with the quieter person backing off, assuming her colleague will take over, anyway. “Rather than expanding their repertoires or learning from the other person, they’re taking even less initiative.”
The answer, says McLain Smith, is “to look at it from a more relational perspective. You can anticipate this is a pattern we might fall into, so let’s negotiate upfront how we’re going to try to minimize it and support each other in doing new things.” Having this kind of meta-conversation may not be common in the workplace—but it should be, she argues. Otherwise, we’re likely to keep repeating old patterns instead of becoming the leaders we want to be.
Repairing difficult or damaged relationships isn’t easy. But clearing up those negative dynamics pays off in many ways. You have more people rooting for you, rather than against you, and they’ll be inclined to support your success. And you won’t be distracted by petty grievances or roiled emotions. You have more time for what matters.
By Dorie Clark
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook and follow her on Twitter.