Alison Green, founder of advice column Ask a Manager, gets almost 500 questions per week — many of them about how to deal with erratic colleagues' behavior. "The [question] I see pop up over and over again in all kinds of different scenarios is, 'How do I say this difficult thing to someone else without causing tension in the relationship?'"
The details of her answer change depending on the particular scenario. But the bones of the advice remains the same: Just have the uncomfortable conversation.
"I think sometimes people are hoping there is some magic combination of words that will let them communicate this difficult thing without feeling an awkwardness around it," Green says. "Sometimes there is a way to say something that is more diplomatic than they'd been thinking about. But so much of the time the answer is, 'You just have to say the thing, and yes, it's going to feel a little awkward, but it will be fine.'"
For example, years ago, Green received a letter from a manager asking how to deal with an employee who claimed to be casting magic curses on her coworkers as a way to intimidate and threaten them. What's worse, the letter-writer wrote, is that two employees actually got sick after being "cursed," which instilled fear in the others.
"The thing I thought was interesting is that, as a manager, you do kind of have a template for handling this," Green says. "You just have to take the magic curses out of it and think, 'OK, what do you do if you have an employee threatening other people?'"
Green's advice to the letter-writer was to be clear with the employee that it's not OK to threaten colleagues. "Tell her clearly that it's not acceptable to threaten to curse or otherwise harm anyone she works with," Green wrote in her column.
Green has offered similar advice to other advice seekers, including one who didn't know how to tell an employee to stop aggressively hugging visitors in the office, and another who didn't know how to ask for space from a coworker who, among other things, wanted to move in with them, rent free.
While you're having that uncomfortable conversation, Green says, it's helpful to keep your tone casual but stern. "Use the same tone that you would use if you were saying, 'Hey, the printer's out of paper, how do we get this fixed?'" she says. "Because people will take their cues from you and, if you're pretty matter of fact, they are more likely to be matter of fact in return."
Authentic and open conversations "almost always" lead to strengthening a relationship, according to relationship psychologist Lisa Marie Bobby, clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching in Boulder, Colorado.
But, she says, we rarely have hard talks because of "anticipatory anxiety," which is when people avoid saying something because they predict it will be unpleasant. This feeling results in us constructing narratives as to why saying nothing is more palatable than speaking up, like "it won't make a difference" or "they won't care."
We then can harbor resentment, which can turn into passive aggression — and the negative relationship spirals.
"Emotional intelligence has been found to be one of the biggest predictors of professional success, and this is exactly why: People who are high in emotional intelligence are able to, among other things, coach themselves through anticipatory anxiety and have those important conversations," Bobby says.
Such as asking an employee to stop casting spells at work.
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