How to build a great relationship with coworkers you don't connect with

How we communicate reveals a lot about who we are. How effectively we communicate is a direct result of how self-aware we are. What we decide to say to others at any given moment is a synthesis of our thoughts, emotions, and interpretations of the emotions and thoughts of our audience. Most people don’t actively think through this framework when they communicate. For many of us, we communicate naturally, based on how we feel. The problem with “shooting from your hip” and communicating without thinking is that our communication ends up not creating the intended effect.

A personal example: Once, my colleague shared with me a product proposal that he put together and sought my input for. I reviewed it and left many comments with questions on the document. My intention was to encourage my colleague to reflect deeper on the assumptions behind his proposal. However, my colleague interpreted my comments as personal attacks on him and his work. I was surprised by my colleague’s reaction. I did not intend to “attack” my colleague. So, what happened?

I dug deeper into my own mind and heart to better understand. I realized that I felt disappointed by the logical gaps that I observed in the proposal. That disappointment manifested as a whole bunch of open-ended questions of “Why? How? What is the connection here?” that made my colleague feel defensive about my comments. I subconsciously complained about my colleague’s work in an unhealthy way instead of sharing my feeling of disappointment with colleague respectfully and openly. In this case, my lack of awareness of my disappointment as I read the proposal led me to communicate in a way that was harmful to our relationship.

In our communication coaching at Flourish, we see numerous examples of how our customers' challenges in communication result from emotions and thoughts that they are unaware of. I will share a few anonymous customer examples.

“Susie” is a rising star at a prestigious company. She went to an elite liberal arts college, is well-read, and prides herself on being an intellectual. She excels at work and owns a lot of responsibilities. However, she feels distant from a couple of her colleagues. She perceives a few colleagues to belong to a “sorority pack.” These few colleagues are very clique-y and talk about fashion and popular TV shows, subjects that do not interest Susie at all. From Susie’s perspective, her colleagues are so different from her that she has no idea on how to connect with them.

After hearing Susie describing this situation in my coaching session with her, I invited her to do a role-play practice session where I would impersonate the colleague Susie has trouble connecting with. Susie would respond by using our effective communication framework that she learned. This was our dialogue:

Hal5 (me role playing Susie’s colleague): “Hey Susie, did you watch the last episode of Gilmore Girls last night?”

Susie: “No, I have never watched that before.”

Hal5: “Not surprising. That’s probably too dumb for you anyway.”

Susie: “What made you choose to watch it? Do you like it?”

In our feedback portion of the session, I pointed out that I had threw an olive branch by inviting Susie to join a friendly conversation. I mentioned a show I was clearly interested in, which was an invitation for Susie to comment. Susie should have practiced some effective communication by using the ‘feeling empathy' strategy and said,

“I haven’t watched it. but you seem super excited about it. Can you tell me about what was interesting about it? Maybe I am missing out on a great show!”

Instead, Susie missed this emotional signal from me, so I made a passive aggressive remark about Susie, “that’s probably too dumb for you anyway.” Susie told me afterwards that she had completely shut down after I said that.

Reflecting on why Susie missed the subtle invitation to connect from her colleague, Susie realized that she let her pre-judgement about her colleague as a shallow sorority girl prevent her from recognizing her colleague’s excitement. Susie missed an opportunity to connect with her colleague. Her judgement prevented her from empathizing with her colleague, which led to more disconnection.

A week later, Susie and I met for our next coaching session. She was super excited to share that she made some great progress in connecting with her colleague. Susie told me that on a call, her colleagues were chitchatting about designer handbags and that she joined in on the conversation by suggesting a particular trending handbag. To Susie’s pleasant surprise, a few of her colleagues actually bought the bag that she recommended! Susie came out of the situation feeling connected with her colleagues and still genuine to herself. She did not need to “dumb herself down” to relate. She used empathy to become genuinely interested in her colleague’s discussion and joined in on it.

In the feedback portion of our coaching session, Susie said the following:

“I felt I was able to be more empathic as a person. That makes me less angry. I am more inquisitive to the situation. Instead of jumping to a conclusion, I stop and listen. As a result, I am less angry. I start to see that there are more possibilities than just my way. When I am angry, I have a definition of what is right and wrong. I have become less judgmental.”

I praised Susie for her deep introspective work. She uncovered new thoughts and emotions within her that she did not realize before. As a result, she now has more freedom to communicate more effectively with others without sacrificing her authenticity.

My coaching experience with customers like Susie has taught me that if you want to improve your communication, you first need to dig deep into your thoughts and emotions. Who you are and what you stand for shape your communication with others, whether you are conscious of it or not.


Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash