I do my best to position myself as someone who’s easy to get along with. I’m not one to say “I don’t like so-and-so”. Granted, will be times where rudeness presents itself. Between encountering less than friendly householders in my volunteer work or guests at the restaurant, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin to rude people.
However, many in these circumstances have been mere strangers, perhaps someone I would be around for a period of minutes, but never expect to see in the near future again. But with those I have to be around often, that’s a much different story.
The idea of having bad blood with someone with whom I’ll frequently be in close proximity sounds like a nightmare! I mean, being in that circumstance definitely benefits no one, so seeking out how to fix that, and fix that quickly, is incredibly important to me.
I’ve had a couple experiences like that in the past. And I feel I did my best to deal with them the best that I could.
One such instance was with a coworker of mine. I’ll call her Jane. She’s worked for the restaurant for many years and has quite a following of loyal guests that come specifically to her to have her serve them. For one reason or another, I sensed that we didn’t see eye-to-eye (save the fact that I’m 6-foot-7). I don’t know what it was. But I could sense this in her overall demeanor. But things reached a boiling pint one night, and I found myself in a bit of a difficult situation with her.
The restaurant was slammed one evening. Everyone was running around in a rush, trying to attend to their duties. In my hurried state, I grabbed a wine glass for a guest who needed one. But this coworker did not like the fact that this wine glass came from “her” area and rudely let me know so. While I had every right to do what I did, I bit my tongue, realizing that whatever I said at that point had the likely outcome of leading to a confrontational situation. I figured that letting things cool off would be the best way to approach the situation.
At the end of the evening, after the “storm” had subsided, I decided to talk to her about what had happened.
“Hey Jane,” I said with a warm demeanor and a smile on my face, “Do you have just a couple minutes?”
Jane approached me with a glare. “Eric, I’m not going to sit down and talk with you about what happened!” she exclaimed. “I’m sorry, ok!? I’m not going to talk about it!”
The gruff apology lacked any sense of genuineness, and left me upset. I had nothing to reply. I just left for the night. I was looking to have a kind, upbuilding conversation that left us both feeling better. But Jane wasn’t having it, and that didn’t make me happy at all, especially knowing that I’d have to see her on a regular basis.
So I went home that day and thought about it. While my initial reaction was “Well fine, I guess I’ll just ignore her moving forward”, I realized that wasn’t the way to go. I had to be the bigger person and make things right.
The very next day, I went to Trader Joe’s. I bought a card. I got an arrangement of orchids. And I filled that card with some very kind words. If she wasn’t going to let me speak what I had to say to her, I figured I’d write it. I wrote to Jane praising her for all she’s done at the restaurant. Her loyal flocks of regular guests, hard work ethic and attention to detail were all things to be commended. Those were the opening words of the letter. Not criticism. Not belittling. Not anger. I wanted to keep the tone as positive as possible.
But then came what I wanted to see from her. I told her that we didn’t need to be best friends, but that we did need to work with an environment of kindness and respect. I apologized if anything I’d done had made her feel any lack of the aforementioned. And again, I praised her, quickly mentioning that I know she’s got great qualities and would only want to contribute to a happy workplace.
I discreetly dropped the card and flowers off that same day, and slipped out the door.
The following day I worked with Jane. It took her a while, but eventually after I arrived she shot me a quick smile.
“Thank you for what you left for me yesterday, Eric.”
I know it took a lot for her to even say that, so I would take it.
It can be hard to put aside pride and the idea of “I didn’t do anything wrong”. But apologizing never hurts and taking the initiative to make peace with someone who might’ve irked you goes such a long way. That simple step contributed to me making big strides with Jane.
Another instance involved another employee, whom I’ll call Alex. Alex was a cook, who mainly worked making pastas. While a hard worker, she was pretty feared by the staff. She was not friendly at all. Approaching her to ask for anything had many servers quivering. And while she’d been nasty toward me in the past too, I broke her! I was nice to her, I joked with her, I teased her, called her my best friend. Eventually, she warmed up to me. But this wasn’t a state I could expect to last forever!
After one period of time, I’d noticed how icy Alex was being toward me. No smiles, no joking, only terse replies. It wasn’t normal. So one night when I was managing, I asked her about it. Her answer really surprised me.
“A few weeks ago you told me to spit out my gum!” she exclaimed in her broken English.
That’s it?! I thought. I had to keep my cool. As soon as she told me that, the instance immediately came into my mind. When I’m managing, I sometimes have to remind the staff to avoid chewing gum. This helps to contribute to sanitation and professionalism in the restaurant. And in my attempts to tread on ice with Alex, I remembered having to be tactful in asking her to get rid of her gum that day. I went out of my way to be friendly, making some small talk with her about her family, recent vacation, and what was new in her life, as I spent time in her station, analyzing and tasting the food on her line to make sure it was up to standard.
The conversation was friendly, but then, with a huge smile across my face, I inquired in Spanglish “Hey Alex, could I ask you a big favor? Would you please get rid of your gum? I would really appreciate it!”
Her face changed, and while initially resisting the direction, she complied with attitude. I thanked her and went about the rest of my line check of her station.
Flash forward to weeks later when she told me what had her feeling so icy. Could something so little in my mind have really made her that upset? I could’ve said something like “REALLY? You’re upset about THAT?! GET OVER IT! It’s not a big deal AT ALL!” It just didn’t seem reasonable to me. But that didn’t matter. She was upset, so I had to make that better.
“Alex, I have to tell people things like that. When I’m managing the restaurant I have to encourage people to follow the rules.”
“Well you don’t correct the other things people do. You only do it to me!” she expressed, in the best English she could, peppering in her native Spanish throughout.
I took a deep breath. “Alex, what conversation did I have with the dishwasher last week about what he was doing wrong?” thinking back to my having to correct him about taking home food that he shouldn’t have been.
She paused. I repeated the question in Spanish.
“I.. I don’t know.”
“That’s right, and do you know why?” I politely but very directly asked. Her shrug prompted my own answer to the question. “That’s because I didn’t talk to him in front of you. When someone does something that needs to be corrected, that’s no one else’s business. I do that in private. So just because you don’t hear what I say to correct others doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
She saw my point.
“You do a lot of great things here, and you work very hard. But there are rules we all have to follow. So sometimes we all need to be corrected.”
Her eyes darted to the ground. Her pensive stance spoke louder than anything she could’ve said. She walked off, heading to complete the work she had to do to close up at the end of the night.
But as I stepped out of the office and I saw her sitting there about an hour later. She asked me “So where do you live?”
Say what? She wanted to make small talk and she was taking a personal interest in me! Wow! That meant a lot. In the weeks to come, I continued to be kind to her, of course tempered with some friendly teasing. One of my main tactics when she scowled in my direction was to tell her “I bet I’m gonna see you smile at least three times before tonight’s over, Alex!”
She’d roll her eyes. She’d turn away. She’d deny it. But after a few more challenging stares from me, she’d crack.
A big toothy smile would roll across her face.
“And don’t you laugh either, Alex… or that counts for TWO points!”
She couldn’t resist that either.
I learned to implement a lot in how to get along with people, to include at work. But these principles don’t just apply in the workplace, I’ve found that they really have value in all interpersonal relationships. Here are a couple things that have helped me in getting along with people:
- Following the Golden Rule. Treating others how I want to be treated. What a simple, profound truth. Getting along with people really requires you to treat others with the respect and kindness that you’d expect to receive in return.
- Take initiative to make peace. I may not be in the wrong in certain circumstances, but going out of my way to extend the first olive branch or offer the first apology helps to smooth out so many situations.
- Wait for the time to be right. Snapping back at Jane or Alex right when conflicts arose would not have been the best timing. I’ve found that dealing with conflict while still angry often exacerbates an already tense situation.
- Use sandwich criticism. Starting with something positive, giving constructive criticism or needed feedback, and then ending with a positive is wildly beneficial. It helps to temper words that could be construed as negative and lightens them with positivity, the “bread” of this criticism sandwich. I liked Wharton professor Jonah Wharton’s blog post Art of Critical Feedback: Making a Criticism Sandwich, in which he said “by starting positive, you circumvent that process. You show people that you’re their friend, not an enemy, and they’re more primed to listen to what you have to say.” So true.
Dealing with conflict is not always an easy process. But I’ve found being kind, patient and understanding in dealing with others really contributes to better outcomes and relationships.