It’s not all about you. Really. Sometimes, it’s not even a little about you. Yet taking things personally is one of the most frequent causes of conflict in the workplace – and in life. It’s easy to fly off the handle when someone gives you a hard time. After all, you fume, it’s not like I haven’t had a bad day / bad year / bad life myself. Who is she to snap at me when I ask a simple question? Before you give her a piece of your mind, take a deep breath and ask yourself these questions.
First question: is this a guy? Sorry guys, but preemptive grumbling can be part of the package, especially peer to peer. According to John Gray, author of Mars and Venus in the Workplace, men and women relate differently to stress in the workplace (and everywhere else.) It’s true, according to Gray, that women multitask better than men, who prefer to focus on something intensely until they solve it. When under stress, men tend to focus even more. If you interrupt a man when he’s staring down a problem, his first reaction will be to grumble. This serves two purposes. If the interrupter is faint-hearted, he or she will retreat, and he’ll be left in peace with his own work. If the intrepid interrupter stands her ground, the grumbling helps the worker change gears. “I’m in the middle of something right now,” he snarls. Think of it as the sound of the gear shift grinding when you shift from first to second. The noise is unpleasant, but you eventually get where you’re going. Wait pleasantly until he looks up again. Then make your request.
Next question: is this the first time I’ve observed this behavior? If Mary is normally cheerful and helpful, and one day growls at you, it’s almost certainly not about you. After all, of all the things that could be causing her misery (marriage, finances, home, kids, parents, health) what are the odds that it’s suddenly her feelings about you that are the problem? Mary deserves more a pass on this; she may even deserve a concerned offer of help if you feel comfortable with that.
Give her some space (see Candace’s rules for de-escalation below.) Approach later that day or the next. Greet her cheerfully, in your usual manner. If she doesn’t respond in her usual cheerful manner, stop for a moment. Give her the benefit of your full attention and ask, “How are you, really?” If she gives you the cheerful and fake, “fine, thanks,” it’s okay to move on. She knows you care, and she knows that you’ve noticed she’s not herself. The rest is up to her. If she decides to unburden, see if you can offer some help (with the work stuff, which is really all you can do.)
Candace’s Rules for De-escalation
- Register the reaction, but hold your fire. When someone reacts with nastiness, raise an eyebrow, but keep smiling. Max Davidson, in an online Telegraph article called the raised eyebrow “the weapon that ruled the British Empire and one of our greatest national inventions. Where Frenchmen and Italians need to deploy both eyebrows before anyone notices, Englishmen are taught from the cradle how to make maximum impact with a single eyebrow, elevated no more than a couple of millimetres.”
- Don’t poke the bear. If a coworker is obviously in a bad mood, asking “what’s wrong with you?” in a plaintive voice is not helpful. In fact, it can enrage your coworker and provoke another snarling attack. It’s best to make a hasty retreat and live to fight another day.
- If your request is urgent and her mood looks like it’s settled in for the day, make your request in writing. That’s what email is for. Keep your language brisk but formal; this is not the place to try humor (see “bear” above.) Do not, under any circumstances, address the email “To Whom It May Concern.” I learned that one the hard way.