Latest posts by Wendy Harrington (see all)
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Now and again, all of us find ourselves in a situation where we have no choice but to spend time with someone we just don’t get along with. It might be – as I experienced a while back – the stranger you’re stuck next to for a 14 hour flight. Perhaps you’re wedged in next to your never-satisfied sister for a long family dinner, or landed the task of managing a really difficult colleague for a high-stakes project at work.
These people might be perfectly fine in their own circles – but you can’t stand them. And yet you have no choice but to share space with them, for a day, a week, or even longer. How can you handle the time you spend with them with aplomb?
When you don’t get along with someone in your team
As a student, I loved theatre, and when I was in my sixth year of med school I directed a play for our University theatre group. There was one actor – my leading lady, no less – who I just didn’t click with. And as time passed, the gulf between us worsened. She repeatedly showed up late for rehearsals and I found her attitude totally unprofessional. Finally, just two weeks before the performance, things came to a head.
“I quit,” she told me, when we finally sat down for a 1:1 chat. “This just isn’t fun. Your expectations are too high; it’s an awful environment to be in. I can’t do this any more.”
I was furious, but I couldn’t avoid it: I had a big problem on my hands.
And this is exactly the kind of outcome we don’t want from our interactions with people we find challenging. By the time you get to the point of your team member resigning or your Christmas dinner thrown into disarray by a big blow up, it’s often much harder to come back to a place of peace.
Even if you’re not at the point of outright conflict, as a leader it’s important to be able to manage the energetic flow in a way that doesn’t affect your goals just because you don’t “click” with someone.
In our Lead the Change program, women with diverse backgrounds and aims come together to explore the foundations of their leadership. Inevitably, not all of them will instinctively find rapport with each other straight away. So one of the important skills we cultivate as leaders is how to maintain communication and compassion, even with people you don’t gel with. Here’s how.
Using Mother to foster compassion
The PowertType I turn to when I want to respond with what I call “energetic appropriateness” in situations like this is “The Mother”.
Watch a wise mother interact with her children and you’ll see her moderate her voice, words, and body language instinctively in reponse to the needs of her children. This is the skill set we want to tap into when it comes to managing difficult people in our lives.
The Mother has access to amazing compassion. She wants things to be OK – but, crucially, the wise mother knows she has to let her children learn their own lessons. She doesn’t have the urge to fix everything, or to prove herself “right” when she sees that they’re making mistakes.
This makes Mother a profound choice when it comes to staying in relationship with people who are having upset or who are triggering us.
How to tap into Mother
1. Shift into a place of compassion.
Connect to compassion, love and understanding. Beyond your surface differences, think about how you can care for this person. Sometimes it helps to literally imagine them as a child – innocent and wanting to be loved.
2. Deeply listen.
Make eye contact with them, and focus on what they’re actually saying – not whatever judgments are running through your head. See if you can “read” their energy too. The actress in my play had been “showing” me with her energy for some time that she wasn’t having a good time. There may be clues here as to what they need to feel supported and safe.
3. Repeat back to them what you’re hearing.
Use the same words they’ve been using with phrases like “it sounds like that was really frustrating”. This is what we call “active listening”, and it means taking the time to reflect back the person’s words so they really feel heard and understood, before trying to respond or help.
4. Ask: “What do you need” or “How can I support you?”
The practice of connecting to Mother is not about solving the problem. So it’s important not to assume you know what’s best, but rather to allow them to stay empowered. You’ll find this especially important as a leader when you’re managing a team.
What we’re looking for here is a way for you to be authentic and stay true to yourself around someone you don’t find it easy to get along with.
There might not obviously be something the person needs your help with, in which case you might use a phrase like “That sounds like it’s been really hard” or “I’m sorry to hear things have been tough lately.”
Give the gift of presence
The most important thing to remember is this: BE PRESENT WITH THEM.
Come from a place of compassion and presence. You’re not trying to fix or change anything – that will only lead to more frustration. How can you accept them as they are?
The most powerful gift you can give is the gift of your compassion. Bring your presence and your compassion, and just be with them.
If you find yourself in judgment
If you find yourself rolling your eyes or internally ranting at their shortcomings, remember this: The judgements in your mind probably say more about you than they do about them.
When I think back to the clash I had with my leading lady back in student theatre, I can see that my immature response was to blame the entire situation on her. With hindsight, I can see that an awful lot of what triggered me was my gradual awareness of how much of a perfectionist I was, and the impact that had on my effectiveness as a leader. (I didn’t know how to have fun in those days, and I’ve since learned how important it is to temper high expectations with warmth and appreciation.)
We often draw into our lives people who trigger things on an unconscious level. So if a particular quality drives you crazy, think about what lesson there might be in there for you. That’s not to say you won’t come across people whose views are unethical, behaviour untrustworthy, or political opinions anathema to your own. But when you can’t escape them, falling into conflict likely won’t help the situation either.
Use the Mother PowerType to access compassion, and stay in your power when it comes to your interactions.
And if you could do with some support, click here to join our lively community and ask for the help you need to stay strong, even when you’re dealing with challenging people.
How about you?
Have you found yourself stuck in a situation with someone you didn’t get along with? Do you have any tips for someone else in a similar situation? Share your story in the comments below.
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