7 ways to increase positivity in your more challenging work relationships

Relationships are one of the defining elements of our work life. When we have great colleagues whom we enjoy working with, it’s easier to get things done, and work is a happier experience. However, when we have a colleague with whom we have difficulty, collaboration becomes harder and work is less fun. Sometimes it gets so bad that we quit. But does it need to be that way?

Much like in a romantic relationship, you can’t change other people. But you can change your own behaviors and mindset and thereby change how you relate to the other person and to the relationship. Taking a cue from John Gottman, if we want to improve a relationship, we need to increase the number of positive interactions and shift the ratio of positive to negative interactions (his ideal is 5:1). There is a kind of basic math at work. A relationship consists of shared experiences and communications, some positive and some negative. Each positive interaction adds to the well of positivity and resilience and each negative depletes. And the one thing that we control is making our own positive contributions.

Here’s how: Think of a person – we’ll call him Ned – that you find it challenging to work with. Maybe it’s so bad that you have begun avoiding him. Try the following ways of making deposits in the “good will bank.”

  1. Find something to appreciate. When we have a negative feeling about someone, our confirmation bias makes us filter the data to seek out further evidence of this negative impression. Instead, actively try to notice Ned doing something right. As my dear old dad says, everybody has something to praise. Note: this can be a private act of appreciation but even better if you voice it.
  2. Do something nice. Studies show that acting generously increases the giver’s happiness. Bring Ned a latte to your next meeting, offer to pick up lunch for him when you go to get your own,  or just offer him a piece of gum. Even something small like a smile or a joke or a thank you increases the positivity and resiliency in a relationship. What are the things you would do naturally if you had a good relationship with Ned? Do those things. Here are some more examples:
    • Ask Ned about his weekend or his pet gecko and listen; ask a follow-up question.
    • Thank him for something he did.
    • Share something about yourself.
    • Say something nice about him to someone else.
    • Say “please” and “thank you” in your emails to him.
    • Acknowledge his hard work or contribution.
    • Acknowledge his need, want or point of view, even if – no, especially if – you have to say no.
    • Invite him to coffee.
  3. Seek alignment. Find something you have in common and it will increase your sense of connection. What do you and Ned agree on? Maybe you’re both committed to hitting your OKRs. Or you both want to get the deal done. Or you’re both Giants’ fans. Find something you agree on and connect to him.
  4. Find compassion. Often a person’s unpleasant behavior is the result of something hidden from us – pain, insecurity, suffering. Next time Ned says something that triggers you, and you feel tempted  to say, “What a d**k,” instead try softening and saying, “I wonder what is bugging Ned.”
  5. Refrain from negativity. Don’t complain or gossip about Ned. It may feel good in the moment, but it multiplies and reinforces the negativity.
  6. Be proactive.Though your instinct may be to avoid Ned, the result is that you are often reactive or behind the curve, which only exacerbates the friction. Instead of waiting for him to ask you for something, anticipate and offer to help before he is in need.
  7. Adopt a growth mindset. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from Ned?’ You can always learn something.

The key here is that you are not trying to change Ned, you are simply trying to change how you are in relation to him and to the relationship. You are testing if changing behavior and thoughts makes your experience more positive or tolerable. Maybe it will have an effect on Ned and maybe not. Try these over the course of a couple of weeks and see if your own attitude shifts. Even if the other person doesn’t respond in kind, chances are you will notice a change.