Q: I’ve been clashing with a coworker, Natalie, over the most ridiculous things. We’re both teachers, so it’s not a supervisory relationship, and I don’t know what her problem is with me. From the get-go, she’s been cold. I’ve always been friendly anyway. But then she started picking fights. She confronts me about things like not replacing paper in the printer (I do) and asking “too-specific” questions at staff meetings. I don’t even know what she means half the time. She’ll sigh and call me self-centered or annoying in front of a group of people. It’s so disrespectful. I assure you that she’s off-base about me, but she manages to goad me into an argument every time. The thing is, I have no idea what I did. When I asked her if I’d somehow offended her, my question offended her! I’m going to give up on this, but I work in a small elementary school and feel uncomfortable interacting with her. I have great relationships with everyone else and just want to be friendly with Natalie. Unfortunately, she’s clear that she doesn’t want to work this out. I think people are a little scared of her, because I’m definitely on my own when she starts acting hostile. Any suggestions?
A: It’s hard to feel uncomfortable in a small environment. The upside here is that you have positive relationships with other colleagues. I’m sure it’s frustrating that no one has stuck up for you, but you’re not isolated and friendless. I think it’s telling that you gave Natalie a chance to share any grievances and she didn’t take you up on it. She may not like you for reasons she can’t or won’t label and you can’t control. Maybe you remind her of someone she can’t stand or she misinterpreted something you said. If she’d like to fill you in, she’ll have to initiate the conversation. She’s entitled to her opinions, but unless she shares them there’s nothing you can do.
So what now? There are things you can and should change, including this dynamic. You shouldn’t be fighting in front of colleagues, and no one should be making ad hominem attacks. There are better and more effective ways to handle these interactions. If she calls you a name, I want you to try looking her in the eye and loudly and firmly saying “that was a rude thing to say.” Keep a level, calm tone, as if you were saying “two plus two equals four.” And here is the key part. As soon as you make that statement, you have to turn and walk away. Most people don’t want to be thought of as unkind, and when you leave the area, all the other people in the vicinity will turn their attention to Natalie. Her mean comment will still be hanging in the air as you depart. It’s a way of applying positive social pressure to encourage her to behave herself. It’s also empowering to create some boundaries. You’re saying, “here’s my line, and you just crossed it.” But you really do have to get out of there right away. Don’t stay and argue.
The rest of the time, be professional and courteous and respectful. You’ll model the way you want her to act. Make sure you communicate with her as effectively as possible to minimize conflict. Because you’ve been fighting, you may have to work harder to assume she has good intentions, but adopting that mind-set will ease the tension. And try not to personalize everything. Imagine that Natalie is going through a rough time and strive for compassion. You can even take that a step further. Some people find it healing to send good thoughts to the person who’s causing them trouble. By being generous in spirit and doing your best to find common ground, you may be able to let go of the bad feelings and accompanying discomfort. Along those lines, don’t be retaliatory. It may be tempting to talk behind Natalie’s back to other colleagues, but that will just spread the meanness. Let all of this stop at her first comment, and use that energy to focus on kids instead. That’s why you’re there.
Finally, let go of the need to be friends with Natalie. Limit unnecessary interactions but don’t blatantly avoid her. Even if she actively dislikes you, she can’t force you to fight with her. If you want civility, don’t let her provoke you.
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