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?
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.
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.
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,