How to approach difficult conversations when your coworkers drive you nuts
Work Space is a biweekly Q&A column tackling the work challenges that keep you up at night. You can read all columns here. If you want advice on something you’re navigating at work, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The question has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: I work in a dog-friendly office. As a lifelong animal lover who grew up with pets of all types, I should love this! And I do, some of the time.
The issue is that my soapbox is about rescue animals. There is absolutely no excuse to ever buy a dog from a breeder. There are hypoallergenic dogs that need adopting and breed-specific shelters.
Unfortunately, most of the dogs in my office are from breeders. French bulldogs, doodles of every sort, Shih Tzus—they all come to work every day. And it’s starting to affect my working relationships with my coworkers. I hate hearing the oohs and aahs over a coworker’s new dog probably bought for thousands of dollars. I hate hearing people ask what breed a dog is and asking where they bought it. I don’t hate the dogs (it’s out of their control) but I’ve started to hate—or at least resent—the people.
I don’t want to come across as rude, but I also think that silence is agreement and approval. How do I balance my personal belief with my professional environment?
I commend you for being passionate about pups and for being such a champion for rescue animals. I’ve got a beloved rescue dog myself (who rescued who, amirite?). I have lots of feelings about Very Good Dogs but as you said yourself, the question here isn’t really about dogs.
You have two pressing issues:
- You feel fundamentally at odds with your coworkers because you don’t think they share one of your most important values.
- Your disapproval and silence are affecting you personally, as well as how you see and interact with your coworkers.
You’re in a tough situation. The presence of these pups is a constant reminder of where your values don’t align with your coworkers. You’re censuring yourself, which is then making you feel complicit and revving up your resentment. And overall, you want things to be different. You want them to have rescue animals. You want them to stop annoying you. You want to be a good advocate for an important cause that matters a lot to you.
When reading your question, I thought about Awkwafina’s character Billi in The Farewell. While the stakes are much higher in Billi’s situation, she, like you, suffers from being the only one in a system who holds a certain value. As the film goes on, you see clearly how Billi’s resentment affects her behavior—even when she isn’t saying anything at all, it’s clear she’s unhappy.
Silently seething wasn’t working for her, and I doubt it will for you. Your feelings are starting to affect you, and they’re going to leak into your behavior, even if you don’t mean to be obvious about your resentment. Billi’s grandmother tells her, “You’ll encounter difficulties, but you must keep an open mind. Don’t be the bull endlessly ramming its horns into the corner of the room. Life is not just about what you do, it’s more about how you do it.”
For you, “how you do it” is critical. It’s time to be proactive about what your message is and how you’re choosing to handle these difficult conversations.
You said you are starting to “hate” the people you work with. If things stay the same, that’s unlikely to change. Wanting to educate people about rescue pets is great, but don’t expect your colleagues to be your captive audience. Find another way to be a champion for your cause. Volunteer for a shelter, do outreach at local events, or something else to educate the public. Finding a way to be an advocate outside of work might make you feel you’re offsetting your coworkers’ behavior.
To change how you feel at work, you’re going to need to address how what you care about isn’t in line with the rest of the people you work with. You can’t change your coworkers’ behavior or completely shift the culture at work overnight. At best, you can work toward having people understand your values, which will hopefully lead to you letting go of some of your resentment (and to them annoying you less).
But let’s be real: Those dogs aren’t going back to the breeders after a conversation with you, and that shouldn’t be your expectation. Think about what you realistically want to get out of the conversation. For someone you don’t know well, your goal might be something as simple as getting them to not congregate around your desk. With someone you work with closely, you might be more intent on having that person understand why you’re so passionate about the issue.
My number one please-if-you-do-one-thing-from-this-advice-column-do-this-one-thing is for you to think about how you approach difficult conversations. You want to move from “How do I show people how I’m right about this important issue?” to “How might I get people I work with to better understand where I’m coming from?”
Talking about different values can be hard. In Difficult Conversations, the authors outline why they’re so hard: Tough conversations always touch on our firmly held assumptions, our identity, our feelings, or some combination of the three. Take time to unpack why the conversation may be difficult for you (which will change depending on who you’re talking to and what your relationship is with them).
You need to set aside your anger and frustration to make this work. If you lead with “there’s absolutely no excuse” people should do X and you “don’t care about why,” your colleagues are going to focus there. Don’t start by telling them what they are doing is wrong, with assumptions about their motivations, or by presenting your perspective as the absolute truth.
You want to be heard; whoever you’re talking to will also want you to understand their perspective. Go into the talk with a goal of understanding and realizing you’re probably going to have more than one talk before you get where you want to be with a bigger culture shift. This cheat sheet based on the book on difficult conversations is really useful to look at when you’re prepping for a talk that may be challenging.
Researcher Brené Brown’s motto “strong back, soft front, wild heart” has become a guiding phrase for me when it comes to navigating tough topics. In an episode of On Being, she explains, “Our deepest human need is to be seen by other people—to really be seen and known by someone else. And if we’re so armored up, and we walk through the world with an armored front, we can’t be seen. And so I think, when you go back to speaking truth to BS and being civil, it requires that strong back, but it requires that soft front…[as Frances Kissling said], ‘One of the greatest acts of courage is to be vulnerable with someone with whom we disagree.’’’
Having strong morals (a strong back) is important, but if you’re so convinced of your beliefs that you keep banging up against the corner of the room, you’re not going to be able to connect with people. Having a “soft front” means you’re open to other perspectives and willing to loosen your armor to let people in. If there’s no one that you feel comfortable being more open with, there’s more to this work culture than dogs that isn’t a fit for you.
You don’t need to invest the time and energy for a challenging conversation with every person in the office who wants to make small talk about a cute dog. You get to decide which work relationships are worth you making the most effort to be heard, what’s most important for people to understand about your perspective, and how much effort you want to put into changing the culture at the office. Hopefully, along the way, you’ll find that everyone you work with isn’t as far away from your values as you may think.
When you separate what’s important to you about your cause and what you need to feel comfortable at work, it’s going to clarify for you if you can tolerate being a part of a work culture where you don’t always see eye to eye with everyone. At a minimum, being open to difficult conversations will help you find better ways to engage people you don’t agree with and new ways to work through feelings that come up when you look out in the world and don’t see your values reflected.
Sending you good vibes,
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