ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
A few years ago I interviewed a woman for a specific job which she didn’t get. Two years later she interviewed me for a job that I did receive. I heard through the grapevine she didn’t want me to get the job as she felt someone else was more qualified. We are in the same department now and have the same job title.
For five and a half years, I’ve been polite, smiled and said hello in the hallways, asked about her vacations, started small talk, etc. She, on the other hand, provides an occasional forced smile and limited eye contact, like I’m invisible. She has only started one conversation with me in all these years.
I’m not a chatty person, but a little friendly hello or smile would be nice. I want to break down the barrier between us, but I don’t want to come off as being overly personal or needy. How can I approach her and overcome this after all this time?
“The Other Woman”
Dear Other Woman,
Sometimes I find it useful to spell out my options. When I do so it helps me become more decisive rather than a harboring a nagging feeling of vague dissatisfaction and a gnawing hope for a magical solution. I think your options are as follows:
1. Get over it. Just accept that you won’t have warm relationships with everyone and don’t let it drag you down.
2. Continue the campaign. It sounds like your strategy so far has been to be overtly polite or solicitous and hope that this communicates your desire to have a cordial relationship. It also sounds like the current level of your campaign has failed (five and a half years is probably a long enough trial period!).
3. Bring it into the open. If #1 seems like a cop-out to you and #2 seems like more of the same, then you’re left with the crucial conversation option. My coauthor, Al Switzler, has often said that “A clear bad relationship is preferable to a vague bad relationship.” What you have now is a vague bad relationship. You don’t know where you stand, you just know the “other woman” seems cold to you. You think you know why, but you’re not sure. If you step forward to have a crucial conversation with her, there’s a chance things could get worse—but the likelier outcome is that—if done well—you may get information that could help you understand why things seem strained. From there you may be able to make things better.
I’ll offer two suggestions for kicking off this conversation.
First, you need to invite her into the conversation. It’s likely she’ll feel threatened by admitting to the problems both of you have avoided discussing for over five years. So you need to give her a reason to engage. Check your own motives at the same time. Clearly you want to improve things so you don’t feel social discomfort around her. She may be interested in that, too. But how else would she benefit if the two of you had a better relationship? And are you sincerely motivated to help her get these benefits? If so, you may begin with something like:
“Can we get a cup of coffee this afternoon? I’d like to get twenty minutes with you to get some feedback from you and to see if there’s a way I can be a better teammate. Would that be okay?”
I don’t know if this is the right offer—but come up with a way of inviting her that sounds inviting, friendly, and limited. The “twenty minutes” lets her know this doesn’t have to be an emotional therapy session. Coffee communicates the same limited risk.
Second, when you get together start with “priming.” Reaffirm your reason for taking this time, then lay out your reasons for believing there’s a problem between you in a way that makes it easy for her to acknowledge. We call this “priming” because it’s akin to priming a pump—you put a little water in to help get the flow of water started. You do so by taking a guess at the thing the other person might have a hard time saying. For example:
“Thanks again for taking a few minutes. Here’s what I’m thinking. We’ve worked together for five years and I think our relationship has been okay—but not particularly warm. I would like to collaborate better with you and be a good colleague to you. I wonder, though, if something happened when we first started that got us off on the wrong foot. For example, that you think I did you wrong when I interviewed for the job you didn’t get? Perhaps that I was unfair or political about it?
“I’d like to get your feedback about anything I’ve done to damage my relationship with you so I can learn from it, but also so I can resolve it and improve things between us as well. Have I done anything that bothered you?”
Again, don’t focus on my exact words as much as the underlying principles. If you want to improve things, the likeliest path may be an attempt at a crucial conversation. And the likeliest path to help that succeed will be to make it safe for her to join you in that conversation and to get the ball rolling by “priming the pump.” If you’re willing to open yourself up to feedback like this, it may help her question her view of you and reciprocate by opening up as well.
Best of luck,