How To Make Peace With Your Enemies At Work And Beyond

Mediocre and perfect relationships aren't the only two choices. Here's how to opt for healthier relationships all around, even with coworkers that just rub you the wrong way.

How healthy are your relationships with the people most pivotal to your success? What would a healthier relationship look like, and how can you take your relationships there?

Many of us don’t ask these questions. We figure that our relationships are what they are. In the words of a senior manager I once coached, “Charles and I can’t stand each other, and we’ll never be best friends, so what’s the point?”

This has the signs and flaws of a classic straw-man argument. What he was really saying was, "If a lousy relationship cannot suddenly morph into a great friendship, then why bother improving it?"—as though mediocrity and perfection were the only two options.

When you put it that way, the whole argument sounds ridiculous, yet millions of people use it every day to avoid improving relationships. And the cost is substantial: toxic relationships that don’t improve remain toxic. They drain more time and energy from organizations than just about anything else. And, to repeat the key point, they don’t need to be great to be better than toxic. Very often, a neutral and respectful relationship will do just fine.

Making peace with enemies means investing the time to improve the lousy relationships until they’re at least neutral and respectful, and, while you’re at it, to improve the other relationships that truly matter. There are five questions you must ask yourself to accomplish this:

1. WHICH RELATIONSHIPS ARE IMPORTANT?

To start, make a list of the relationships that are obviously important to you: your boss, your direct reports, your peers, and any internal or external customers. Now add to this list the names of people who have helped you make something happen in the past, those who could block what you’re doing, and those who manage key resources or have the ear of the people who do. We’ll call these your important relationships.

2. WHAT IS THE CURRENT QUALITY OF THESE RELATIONSHIPS?

Here comes the fun part. For each person on the list, make an assessment of the health of your relationship using the following scale:

  1. Toxic:

    Neither of you can be in the room with the other without feeling ill.
  2. Negative:

    When you’re around each other, it isn’t relaxing and can feel unpleasant.
  3. Neutral/Respectful:

    No warm fuzzy feelings, but also no ill will.
  4. Positive:

    You enjoy each other and have a mutual respect.
  5. Great Vibe:

    Being around each other is easy and effortless. Your conversations “flow” and fill you with positive energy.

3. WHICH RELATIONSHIPS ARE TRULY PIVOTAL?

Now it’s time to focus. If you were to pick three to five relationships to invest in improving over the next six months, which ones would you choose? I suggest you use a single criterion for making this decision:

  • Which relationships, if improved, will have the greatest positive impact on your ability to accomplish your goals and fulfill your purpose?

Notice that I’m not asking you to assess the value of a relationship. I’m asking you to assess the value of the improvement in a relationship. The ones that rate most highly are your pivotal relationships.

4. WHAT DOES AN IMPROVED RELATIONSHIP LOOK LIKE?

Take a look at this list of three to five pivotal relationships. How healthy would you like each relationship to be in six months? What would an improvement in each look like? There are two rules to remember when thinking about this:

  1. The relationship improves at least one point on the quality scale.
  2. Every relationship ends up at least at Neutral/Respectful.

5. WHAT CAN YOU DO TO IMPROVE THE RELATIONSHIP?

The specific steps you take to improve each relationship depend upon many factors: the current and desired future health of the relationship, your strengths and style of building relationship, the other person’s preferred communication style and medium, the intensity of your current work together, the nature of your working relationship (peers, boss, direct support, etc.), and the specific history you have with each other. Nonetheless, there is a handful of practices worth considering regardless of your particular situation:

  • Apologize

    Have you done anything in the past that hurt the other person? Have you ever apologized for it? A simple apology given with sincerity and heart can go a long way.

  • Say thanks

    Keep an eye open for little things the person does that you appreciate. These could be things they’ve done for years that you’ve never noticed or acknowledged. Thank them for these actions. Be sure to mention precisely what it is you appreciate and the specific positive impact it has on you.

  • Have a conversation for relationship

    Schedule time to find out what’s important to the other person and reveal what you care about. Speak genuinely and listen openly. If you already know that they like Thai food, suggest having this conversation over lunch at a Thai restaurant.

  • Turn toward them

    Every micro-interaction you have with them is an opportunity to make small improvements in your relationship by turning toward them.

  • Stop doing something that bothers them

    Everyone has pet peeves, so this person likely has one related to you. Find out what it is and stop doing it.

  • Acknowledge changes they’ve made

    If you’ve started to change how you interact with this other person, it’s quite possible they will change how they behave toward you. When they do something positive, however small, appreciate it. Don’t contrast it to what they used to do but simply acknowledge their effort and the positive result.

If you take these steps and adapt them to your situation, you can make peace with your enemies and strengthen your ties with your friends.

Amiel Handelsman is a Portland-based executive coach and change consultant with two decades of experience developing leaders. He is the author of Practice Greatness: Escape Small Thinking, Listen Like A Master, And Lead With Your Best (JZ Leadership Press, 2014).

[Image via Shutterstock]

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2 Comments

  • Maura Wolf

    Great article! Our organizations would be very different places if people act on this advice.

  • Maura, Thanks for the kind words. And I agree with your point. One thing that continually surprises me is how surprised people are that these things work. Amiel Handelsman