Dear Crucial Skills,
I have a coworker who abuses my open-door communication policy. Our offices are side-by-side, and we both benefit from this arrangement by discussing dilemmas and sorting through issues to prioritize our group’s efforts.
However, my coworker has a very reactive way of coping with an e-mail she does not like or a phone call from someone who disagrees with her. She will come rushing into my office to rant about this e-mail or that coworker, or this phone call or that situation. This happens five to six times a day! This behavior is distracting because she expects me to put aside what I’m working on to pay attention to her. She’s also thin-skinned, very volatile, and I suspect less than receptive to a conversation that centers on her negative behavior. Any suggestions?
This is an interesting question because it’s hard to say which issue you should address.
The first skill of crucial conversations is picking the right conversation. Your two options are:
1. Reset expectations. This one is fairly straightforward. The key is to make it about you and not the other person. This is you realizing you need a different boundary in order to be productive in your work—not blaming your coworker for interrupting you. If you set it up that way, there is minimal chance of defensiveness.
2. Address your coworker’s volatile behavior. There are two reasons to address this issue first. One reason is if you think—no matter how careful you are—you’ll be unable to focus on resetting expectations. If this is true, then you have to address your coworker’s volatile behavior first. The second reason is if it is more important to address her behavior than it is to reset expectations. When you use words like “volatile,” it sounds as though you may have been putting up with abuse for some time and even enabling her misbehavior by not asking for things you want or need in your work relationship. If this is true, you have to hold an entirely different crucial conversation.
If you decide to reset expectations, as I said, make it about you and your needs—not a criticism of your colleague. This is both true and easier to express without creating defensiveness. Go in with a specific proposal—not just a vague criticism. For example, you might simply say, “I’ve noticed that I go home many times feeling disappointed in how much I get done. I’ve realized that one reason is that I don’t focus. I am going to start creating “islands of focus” in my day—when I do not respond to e-mail, talk with colleagues, or schedule meetings. This will put a cramp in the spontaneous conversations we sometimes have, but I want to try this. Can I ask that from 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. you not tempt me with interesting topics?”
You’ll then need to maintain this agreement and give reminders if there are encroachments. If you don’t, then you will be colluding in undermining your own request. So be firm and consistent—odds are it will only take a couple of reminders and you’ll have a bit of solitude.
Confronting her behavior will be more difficult. I might be reading more into this than I should—but I’m inferring not just to volatility (i.e., she gets animated when expressing frustrations) but to hostility (she is defensive and rude when you confront her about concerns). If I am correct, you may want to hold her accountable on this issue. You may also want to give some thought to how you may be rewarding this pattern by allowing it to cause you to tiptoe around other behaviors that don’t work for you (like constant interruptions). Over time, a weakness like this can turn into a technique when those around her reward it too consistently.
If you decide to address this issue, once again, start with safety. When confronting a longstanding pattern that you’ve colluded in, a good way to do this is to acknowledge your part. For example, “I’d like to discuss a concern that I’ve put off addressing for a long time. I realize the pattern we’ve fallen into is as much my fault as yours—as I’ve been staying silent and blaming you for my silence. I’d like to discuss the problem—including how I might be contributing to it—and find a way to work together that is acceptable to both me and you.”
From here, you’ll need to describe two or three examples of the pattern. Be careful, because each time you describe an instance, she’s likely to offer excuses for that instance. For example, you might say, “Last week when I pointed out misspellings on your PowerPoint slide you called me a loser. Then laughed and walked away.” If she then says, “I was joking!” You need to return her to the pattern. Say something like, “I realize there might be special reasons you said things in each circumstance I raise. And yet, what I’m asking you to notice it that there is a pattern—one that is unacceptable to me. If it happened just once, I wouldn’t be discussing this. This is something that happens regularly. Can you see that?”
This will be tricky, but the key is to maintain safety while being fully honest. You need to begin exercising a firmness you have not in the past. If you do, there is a good chance you can get closer to the kind of relationship that will work for you.