Crucial Skills®

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How to Start Over with a Coworker

Dear Joseph,

How do you start over with a colleague who does not like you, does not want to talk with you or work with you, and has gone out of their way to try to make you look bad on several occasions? I stopped speaking to this person six months ago, but I’d like to try to rebuild trust with this person. How do I even begin?

Signed,
Fresh Start

Dear Fresh Start,

Unfortunately, you can’t start over. There is no way to erase hurts and wrongs of the past—those done by the other person or by you. And nothing you can do will guarantee warmth and friendship with your colleague. In fact, if what you’re looking for is a way of getting them to treat you better, I’ve got nothing. This may be more than you were asking for, but I don’t think I’d be a true friend if I didn’t offer my best to you. So here you go…

I believe it is impossible to separate character from connection. The quality of my relationships with the most imperfect people in my life are the best measure of my own development. In other words, personal development is the foundation of all interpersonal success. I apologize if I’m being too autobiographical here, but so much of your question makes me wince as I recall times in my life when I’ve framed my problems the same way. I hear my own impatience, self-pity, resentment, withdrawal, and fragility. The path forward for me has not been an interpersonal tip or two. It has been a set of intrapersonal calisthenics that are helping me become the kind of person who can connect with other flawed people.

If this sounds useful to you, I’ll suggest three practices that create a possibility of improvement in the relationship, and a certainty of self-improvement that enhance every relationship in your life. These practices are more a way of being than a plan of action. They’re enormously challenging but inevitably rewarding. I can personally attest that most every improvement in the quality of my dearest relationships in past decades has come from sincere (albeit imperfect) effort in these three practices. They’ve helped me cultivate peace even when conditions in relationships were contentious. And they’ve given me a path to create trust and intimacy with those who want it with me.

Confront Your Story

We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are. Our internal narrative about our conflict with others is steeped in self-serving bias. Your description of “a colleague who does not like you, does not want to talk with you or work with you, and has gone out of their way to try to make you look bad” has that patina. I invite you to interrogate your story in a couple of ways. First, how has your behavior played a role in the conflict? And second, are there more generous ways of characterizing your colleague’s verbal and nonverbal behavior than what you have chosen. For example, could your hurt feelings have colored your behavior towards them? Where have you been less than helpful? And is it possible that their behavior has been less about surliness and malice and more about hurt or fear? Small generosity in adjectives can produce major returns in empathy. This kind of narrative introspection is the calisthenics of both humility and compassion. The more you practice it, the likelier you are to behave in ways that create opportunities for connection.

Practice Vulnerability

You asked about rebuilding trust. Trust cannot be built without risk. I’m told that the shaking of hands emerged in some ancient cultures as a trust-building ritual, as it involved emptying the dominant right hand of its weapon. Extending it openly to a stranger involved risk.

Fortunately, most relationship risk is self-generated. Approaching others with an open hand requires only laying down unconscious subterfuge. Much of what we do in relationships with others is manipulative. We say “good morning” and then watch carefully for reciprocal greeting. We quickly respond to an email and then note whether the other responds in kind. We invite a colleague to lunch, then chafe that they don’t match our generosity. It wasn’t generosity if it was freighted with expectation. Vulnerability means stripping action of expectation. It means doing the right thing because of who you are, not because of what you get. Say “I love you” to your partner because you want to express love, not because you’re hoping for payback. Your feeling of risk diminishes when you are liberated from expectations.

Have you been vulnerable in the past with your colleague? Or have you ignored generous impressions you’ve had because you were fearful your colleague wouldn’t respond in kind? If so, start honoring those impressions. Be vulnerable. Be gracious. Be kind. Be patient. Be forgiving. Do so without checking your watch to see how long it takes before you’re compensated. Spot and surrender expectations when you find them creeping into your motives. When you do, you trade the hidden hope of public payback for the honest certainty of personal growth.

Surrender Certainty

Will any of this “work?” Absolutely! If by working you mean growing. It will make you into a person who is more capable of the patience, humility, and kindness required to connect deeply with imperfect people. You’ll still be disappointed when you can’t find the friendship you hoped for with others. But you’ll have the peace and satisfaction of showing up in ways you prize. You’ll stand confidently even during long periods when others aren’t ready for healthy connection because your focus is not on getting what you want, but on being who you want to be.

We develop the strength we need to endure the uncertainty of relationships by cultivating internal sources of worth and security. Next only to my spiritual convictions about human identity, I know of no more stable source of worth than living with integrity to my deepest values. Every time you take pleasure in choosing a hard right over an easy wrong, you make yourself more independent of the approval of others.

I know I’ve given you few actionable tips. But I’m confident that if you ponder these principles, you’ll know the best path forward.

With every best wish,
Joseph

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28 thoughts on “How to Start Over with a Coworker”

  1. steve roth

    Easy to read, hard to do! I will work on adopting this…..

    1. Joseph Grenny

      Me, too!

    2. Bernadette Parsons

      Very thoughtful and actionable. Joseph’s advice is a 3 minute read, probably composed over many hours or even days but shares a life of wisdom.
      Excellent!

  2. Lee Mor Nam

    Epic response. Wisdom.

    Exactly what I am working on myself to be better version than yesterday. I am making progress ….. *smile*

    Key words I coined to serve as a reminder:
    Self-Empowerment. Be the Change. Be Amazed.

  3. Rebecca Knapp

    You never cease to amaze me – such valuable wisdom. Thank you and please don’t stop!

    1. Joseph Grenny

      No need to worry. I’ve got lots more to learn!

  4. Rose P.

    Taking the hard right vs. the easy wrong…recognizing ones’ self discipline needed when encountering those inevitable relationship forks in the road. Ya, hard to do but worth it.

  5. Nancee

    Straight up truthful answer. Thank you for the way forward . . .

  6. jennifer lee

    This article is the reverse of what I went thru a few years ago. I extended welcome to a much younger new employee transferring into my team. Trained them and then without any known issues or conflict they turned against me and started being short and angry. I eventually found that another teammate was feeding them negative comments, but that teammate and I always got along. I tried all in my power to connect, being selfless, approaching softly, asking questions. Finally the coworker told me “Trust has to be earned”. To this day I don’t know what the trigger was or what trust was lost. It haunts me sometimes. They no longer work for our company and I have peace. I did learn something I already knew but more to heart now that – “I am responsible for my own actions and feelings and cannot change others view of me – its their view whether right or wrong.” So sad, we would have made a great team~

  7. Maria R.

    Brilliant and challenging. I come into most situations with expectations, maybe not at first but at some point.

    1. Joseph Grenny

      That makes two of us.

  8. Torri Sanders

    I can’t begin to tell you what a blessing you are to so many people. Thanks for your work on learning and changing and for teaching us.

    1. Joseph Grenny

      Thank you, Torri. That’s encouraging to hear.

  9. Ryan Trimble

    Thanks, Joseph. I’m a better person for knowing you. Keep challenging us.

  10. Jackie Brown

    Excellent encouragement! So true! Great advice (as always)!

  11. Vish Nenmeli

    Amazing insights (as always 🙂 ) – Thanks Joseph

  12. TIMOTHY RICHARDS

    So well written. I have had these situations and you give me the strength, understanding and confidence to keep being me for my sake not what I get out of it. Really motivated some days.

    Thank you.

    1. Joseph Grenny

      Then it was worth the work.

  13. Rebecca S.

    This is life-changing advice! After recently making a “hard right” decision, your message is timely and reaffirming. Thank you for sharing your insight and wisdom.

  14. Dr. Dennis O'Grady

    Always grateful for your life wisdom and actionable tips, Joseph. Especially loved….
    “But you’ll have the peace and satisfaction of showing up in ways you prize. You’ll stand confidently even during long periods when others aren’t ready for healthy connection because your focus is not on getting what you want, but on being who you want to be.”
    Thanks so much!

  15. Bryhony Mate

    I have been in this situation where I said some horrible things about a colleague which had tarnished my reputation at work.
    All I did was take accountability for my actions, allowed time for the individual who I had hurt time to process what I had said and done.

    I left it a month or so.

    I then wanted to see them in person, though could only do by phone due to logistics at work.
    I asked her if it was okay to talk about this matter.

    I was genuine in this conversation.
    I stated the facts, what I said and done. I acknowledged what I did was completely unforgivable and should have never said this. I said that I am completely ashamed of what I had done as it was out of character of myself and I became a person I did not want to be, though this behaviour is never excusable.

    I gave a heartwarming apology and acknowledged that I knew things will never be the same, though would love the opportunity to work on our professional and friendship outside of work if she was willing to give me a chance to gain her trust and respect.

    I asked her if she wanted to chat about this further, I am willing to for closure for herself in person.

    She thanked me for the apology and said that this would be a good idea and it will take a while to gain my trust and respect from her.

    I thanked her for the chance and explained my gratitude for this.

    This conversation was all about her.

    I will always will feel horrible for what I said and done, though that’s on me and never burden.

    It has taken me years to gain some/little trust from her and others around.
    This will be an ongoing process.

    I am always conscious of what I do and say.

    I even have recovery conversations as a peer with other Staff who have done the same.
    This has made the lady I hurt.

    1. Joseph Grenny

      Beautiful. A master class in humility.

  16. David Benjamin

    This article reminded me of Proverbs 19:18
    “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle.”

    The solution the article mentions is to protect yourself from expectations of any reciprocal over any Oliver branch reconciliation you make to mend the relationship.

    Another phrase that comes to mind is “What they think of me is none of my business”

    One question I’ve pondered is this:
    Does lowering or removing expectations also lower or remove motivation?

  17. John Guetterman

    Joseph, your advice through the years in articles like this, presentations, and books have had a life-changing and life-enriching impact on my life. Thank you for your courage and effort. This article is another prime example of the profound, loving, and challenging perspective you offer. Your faith-informed wisdom shines through. Keep up the great work!

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  19. Tamara Coombs

    I read these articles regularly and find them helpful, but this really struck home – “intrapersonal calisthenics” and “OTHER flawed people” – so true, I have much work to do, on me.

  20. C S

    Very good wisdom, I have come to the same conclusion after dealing with such a person for 10 years. I never did get thru to this person and they continue to undermine me to our manager, but I have become confident in who I am and am not bothered by this person’s views nor do I retaliate or hold a grudge. I deal and communicate with this person in a professional manner when it is needed for the business. My only problem is this person has become the manager’s favorite and there is now a good chance of them becoming my manager. What can I do in this situation besides contemplate leaving to find another job? Is there any hope I can make this work or is it just best to leave on my terms?

  21. pamelaejohnsonumich@hotmail.com

    This is very good wisdom. It’s true, one cannot repair a broken relationship with a co-worker. However, I do believe in the spirit of Karma. What you give out comes back to you. And, It can be negative or positive. Often, one doesn’t need to be around to see the outcome. In my situation, the manager basically said, “Get rid of her.” And, the manger did. Did it hurt? Yes, it did. Yet, I learned from it. When one has wisdom, the hurt is released and one is positioned to soar again. It’s important to not look back, remain focused, find support through friends, and move forward.

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