My Coworker Cuts Me Off, Doesn’t Listen, and Always Says No. What Now?
Dear Crucial Skills,
I am a new director in a healthcare environment. I am struggling to collaborate with another director who reports to a different administrator. She and I have very different leadership and communication styles, and it feels as if she does not respect my role. She does not listen, cuts me off mid-sentence, and is constantly trying to find a way to undermine me or say “no” to any new idea. No matter how hard I try to present something in a way that puts us on the same team, she will find a way to argue. Prior to my arrival she had already created a toxic environment and had lost the respect of her direct reports. This behavior has been allowed to continue over many years. Help! She will be the reason I quit this job!
On the Edge
Dear On the Edge,
For the sake of my response to you I am going to make two assumptions:
- You are accurately describing your peer’s behavior and its frequency.
- The behavior is not a reaction to some of your own behavior.
I will often challenge people to examine both of these assumptions. But for today, I’ll set that aside. Instead I will assume this person consistently interrupts people, opposes their ideas, and in other ways demonstrates disrespect to peers and direct reports. And it has nothing to do with you.
I have three suggestions for your consideration:
- Have it out. The highest risk action you can take is to completely level with her. This sometimes works. And sometimes it doesn’t. But you should at least consider having a completely honest crucial conversation in which you: a) let her know you are dissatisfied with the relationship, want a much better one, and are willing to work at it if she is; b) give her fully honest feedback about the range of behaviors that don’t work for you; c) invite the same level of candid feedback in return. I have had both success and failure with this approach. I have had relationships completely turn around when I stopped silently fuming against people and demonstrated an authentic desire to connect honestly. But I have had the opposite occur as well: I’ve had people resent my honesty, deny any of my concerns, and begrudge my attempt. However, I can honestly also say things were rarely worse than they were before I tried.
- Let it go. Another option is to work on your tolerance muscles. Do the “inner work” of sorting through the ways you emotionally amplify her unhelpful behaviors by personalizing them. For example, when she cuts you off do you feel slighted or belittled? If so, this is your stuff. Just because another person gives offense doesn’t mean you need to take it. The central task of life, in my view, is to learn to live happily with imperfect people. There are times when I conclude that a person’s weaknesses are so habitual that the amount of energy I am willing to invest is unlikely to produce change. In these instances, I can still choose to stay connected to them, weaknesses and all. I can learn to focus on the virtues I search for in them. But let me warm you: If you take this approach, you must do it honestly. This means that any time your resentments flare again, you will have to remind yourself that you chose to accept this. Choosing this route means you surrender the option of fuming about the weaknesses you chose to accept.
- Hold boundaries for the things you aren’t willing to let go. For example, perhaps you will decide that her reflexive negativity is something you can accept, but that it’s not okay with you that she cuts you off. If so, set a boundary. And remember rule number one about boundaries: Your boundaries are your job. It is up to you to enforce them. Let her know that this is a problem. It’s best not to do this in the moment when she is cutting you off. Make it a separate conversation. This takes more courage, but it is more fair and helpful in the end than ambushing her the next time she clips you. Let her know that you’d like her to be more aware of this. Invite feedback about ways you might be crowding her in conversations as well. For example, perhaps she thinks you take too long to make a point. Or that you repeat yourself. Her interruptions might be a signal that she isn’t getting anything new and wants to move on. Then next time you are speaking and she interrupts, hold the boundary! Politely say, “I’m not finished yet. I’ll try to be brief.” Then do so. When others cut you off and you say nothing, the problem is not that they are disrespecting you, it is that you are disrespecting you.
- Make a decision. Your final option is to move. If, on the whole, working with her compromises your quality of life in a way you aren’t willing to accept, then don’t accept it. Move. But if you don’t move, take responsibility for that choice. If you choose to stay, then you are choosing to use 1–3 above. Don’t blame her for being who she is. The worst kind of dishonesty is lying to ourselves. We do that when we claim we are victims rather than agents in our own choices.
Life is full of tradeoffs.
I hope this gives you a way of thinking clearly about yours.
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