An article I wrote many years ago has seen a lot of play recently on various internet sites. It's called "Working with Difficult People: Turn Tormentors Into Teachers". The article has been generating a lot of comments from readers hoping to think differently about the unlikely teachers in their lives. It seems clear that most of us have these folks in our lives and just as clear that we’d really like to change them from tormentors to teachers.
I’m certainly no different. And maybe because of the article, and maybe just because I want to walk the walk as well as the talk, I decided to practice one recent day with a "tormentor" of my own. I put quotation marks around the word, because he’s actually a great guy. It’s just an oil and water kind of situation. Because of a committee we’re on together we’re forced to interact on a regular basis and it’s a real struggle. Whatever he says, or maybe just the way he says it, tends to irritate. And so I thought perfect! I’ll invite him out for coffee. And... he accepted! With a big smile! Coffee turned into lunch, which turned into a wonderful conversation, and eventually into a great working relationship.
Finding My Better Self
Why did I ask him to join me? Why that day? Why do it at all? It wasn’t just about walking the walk. I was getting tired of coming to the committee meetings with gritted teeth, looking anywhere but in his direction, and trying to manage the tasks at hand without connecting with him. This takes work. And energy. Like a weight being dragged around. I felt boxed in, and I don't like feeing that way. As I write in my new book, Turn Enemies Into Allies, often it takes more time, more work, to not resolve the conflict. I was tired of not being my best self around this person, and I knew the only way this was going to change was if I changed.
When the thought first came into my head--why don't you invite him out for coffee--I immediately replied (to myself), "No, that's crazy. Don't do it. It's one thing to think about it, but...." But.... hey, am I going to practice what I preach? So I decided to practice.
How About a Cup of Coffee?
You know what happened. We had a great time.I learned about his family, his pets, his wife who had died a few years before and the great times they'd had together. I love my spouse, too, and I appreciated him even more hearing how he missed his. I sensed his pride when he talked about his children, his home, and the things he likes to do in his spare time--singing (me, too!), scrabble, and keeping fit.
Now when we see each other, it's very different. The behaviors that used to annoy me are still there, but they make me smile instead of frown. I'm a different person around him, although he hasn't changed at all. And from what I can glean, he wasn't even aware any of this was going on for me. He didn't know I was annoyed, tense, or grumpy before. He didn't see me struggling, and maybe doesn't see any difference in my behavior now. But I'm free of the weight, and the tension, and the energy drain. It's great.
Who's sapping your energy? Don't wait another minute to invite them out for coffee.