We all know the feeling: You check your calendar and see that you’re scheduled to spend an hour with that guy. You take several deep breaths, and go to a happy place in your mind — all to fortify yourself for what is sure to be another difficult meeting. He’s unpleasant, negative, and bossy; speaks too loud and too often; sucks the air out of the room.
You just don’t like him.
You’ve tried to alter your mind-set — focusing on his strong work ethic and intelligence — but to no avail. You’ve tried shifting your interactions to times when you are rested and relaxed. It doesn’t work. Morning, noon, or night, that guy bugs you.
But you have to work with him anyway.…
Years ago, I worked with a woman who put me to sleep. She wasn’t that bright or strategic, I thought. She talked too slowly and worried too much. I didn’t like her, and I’m sure the feeling was mutual, as relationships usually are. I never did learn to love her — or a few others, for that matter — until doing so became necessary for my success as a coach.
I know that love seems like a weird word to use in the context of business relationships, but it fits. Love may be a “many-splendored thing,” as the song goes. But it’s also a many-faceted thing. As Daniel Goleman writes in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, “neural wiring interacts in different combinations in love’s many varieties — romantic, familial, and parental — as well as in our capacities for connecting, whether in a friendship, with compassion, or just doting on a cat.” Uncomfortable with the word love? Substitute compassion, defined by psychotherapist Beverly Engel as “the ability to understand the emotional state of another person or oneself. Often confused with empathy, compassion has the added element of having a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering of another.”
According to Goleman, compassion starts with attention or “tuning in.” Given the brain’s mirror neurons (a brain-to-brain link that causes us to feel what others feel), tuning in usually leads to empathy, which in turn sets up the conditions for compassion and compassionate acts.
Collaborating effectively requires helping others. And helping others requires compassion, which in turn means learning about who they are and what they want. So in order to help my clients, at the start of each relationship, I devote two or three hours to asking the following questions:
· What are your proudest accomplishments and biggest disappointments?
· Which activities energize you and which drain you?
· How do other people describe your strengths and weaknesses?
· What are your near-term and long-term goals?
· What challenges are you facing? What keeps you up at night?
· If you died tomorrow, what would you want your legacy to be?
Over my 15-plus years in coaching, I have learned that everyone has a compelling story, complete with passions, setbacks, victories, and dreams, and a cast of supporting characters. The more I ask and listen with an attitude of curiosity and anticipation, the more I learn. Within two or three meetings, my clients become more than a title, an office, and a paycheck. They become endearingly human. I fall in love and feel compelled to help.
As I reflect on these questions and the colleague that used to put me to sleep, I am unable to answer any of them — and I worked with her for years. Without even knowing her, I judged her. And my judgments tainted and limited our relationship and the impact of our collaboration.
Take a moment and write down the names of the people who bug you, or those you have judged lacking. Then consider the questions listed above and write down what you know about each person. Chances are there will be a lot of white space on your paper. Go through this exercise and you will discover that you don’t know much about the people who bug you, but you’ve likely been behaving as if you do. Labeling people constrains the possibilities that might arise out of relationships. We should be disappointed in ourselves when we fall into the trap of existing in a self-absorbed, distracted state of mind and give up the opportunity to love and be loved in turn.
So do yourself and your colleagues a favor by investing the time to see others for who they truly are — their splendors as well as their shortcomings. Pick the person who is causing you the most angst. Schedule coffee or lunch with him or her and say that you want to get to know them better. Don’t talk business. Ask questions, reflect on what you hear, share a bit of yourself, and dig in and keep asking questions until you feel your heart changing. You won’t want to do this. Do it anyway. Push aside your doubts and your negative mental models and give it a try. And if you find that it is a waste of time, email me (including the answers to the questions above), so I can help you refine your approach. Repeat the process with the next person on your list. And continue to do so until your list includes only psychopaths or narcissists.
It constantly amazes me that we try to collaborate with and influence people we barely know. Take inspiration from Vincent Van Gogh, who said, “Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.” Learning to love requires conscious effort. But it is work that is worth the effort.