My hands froze over the computer keys as a voice behind me spoke condescendingly.
“No, Joan, not that way.”
I was huddled at my desk, working on something I’d done countless times before, and once again, a certain coworker - who was in a completely different position - was peering over my shoulder and giving me instructions.
“I would name those differently,” she explained, shaking her head and pointing at my screen. She picked up her box of files and walked away.
I was in my third job, young, shy, and already feeling insecure about my place in this particular company. And since my first day, one of my coworkers seemed especially unhappy about me being there. She usually greeted me by raising her eyebrows and keeping her mouth in a straight line, and even though we worked right next to each other most days, she only spoke to me when she wanted to give me “constructive” criticism.
After all these years, I started thinking about her again, because I was asked a question about how to deal with an unfriendly coworker. Here’s what I think it takes, and these things are what I wish I’d known back then:
(1) BE COMPASSIONATE
We really don’t know why people are the way they are. Who knows what your coworkers deal with when they aren’t at work, or what they’ve dealt with in the past, or what other people have made them believe about themselves, or what they’ve been made to believe about other peoples’ motives. We just don’t know.
So before everything else, have compassion for them, and have it in your mind that this person who is being so unfriendly is someone who is going through a hard time.
(2) REMEMBER YOUR REASON TO WORK WELL WITH YOUR COWORKER
It’s that you’re using this job to achieve your biggest personal goals, and your connections at work are a very valuable part of that process. You’ll have to constantly remind yourself of that, because there will be days when the thought of seeing your coworker’s face will make you want to call in with food poisoning.
(3) BE CONFIDENT
Because an unfriendly coworker could make you question yourself, and it would be easy to take that person’s behavior personally. You want to have confidence at work anyway, but you’ll need it even more abundantly in this case.
(4) STAY IN CHARACTER
Your coworker will tempt you to throw this off, but if you do you’ll miss out on this fantastic opportunity to develop priceless skills and attributes at work. And being able to stay in control of yourself and be at your best during this challenge will be so satisfying!
(5) MAKE IT YOUR MISSION TO BE FRIENDLY
This will make you feel so much better. You’ll be doing something kind for your coworker, and it will be so fulfilling for you. Every time you go to work, have a secret mission to give friendliness this coworker. You want to make sure you do this in a respectful way, so don’t be pushy, or obvious, or try to force him/her into conversations. You don’t want to make your coworker uncomfortable, so do this with consideration, and good judgement, and lots of respect. But give friendliness, and just wait till you see how much better you feel!
(6) USE THIS EXPERIENCE TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
Right now you’re getting such great practice to develop a very useful and valuable skill: working with difficult people. Say a silent “thank you” to this coworker for the opportunity, and take advantage of it!
That was just a summary, but if you’d like to get the details - and hear about how one of these helped me in a later experience with another coworker - here’s a video where I break it all down:
*And I said this in the video, but just in case you don’t see it, I feel like I have to make this disclaimer:
This whole thing is about the coworkers who are generally well-meaning people, but something has caused them to be abrasive/condescending/critical/irritable/insensitive/gruff… Unfriendly.
This is NOT about abusive behaviors. Bullying, harassment, or discrimination of any kind are way beyond the realm of unfriendly, they are NOT okay, and they are NOT what I’m talking about here.