In-house Interpersonal: Maybe Mea Culpa, Maybe Not

by Ilise Benun

I enjoyed the recent post where Donna Farrugia of The Creative Group wrote about Recovering from Workplace Blunders.

But what about situations that aren’t so clear cut. Your colleague or boss is behaving strangely, which makes you nervous, thinking maybe it has something to do with you.

Here’s an excerpt from my book, Stop Pushing Me Around: A Workplace Guide for the Timid, Shy and Less Assertive, on what to do when you imagine you’ve done something wrong but aren’t quite sure.

Don’t torture yourself. If you sense someone is unhappy with something you’ve done, it is your right (and obligation) to find out. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time worrying! Whether it’s a client, coworker, or supervisor, you’ll be better off if you initiate the conversation rather than waiting for the other person to approach you. It may have nothing to do with you, and then again it might. Either way, it’s best to find out.

In broaching the topic, your people reading skills will come in handy. Keep your eyes open for a time when the other person is open. Then keep the focus on you by saying, “I have a question for you.” Or, “I’ve been wondering about something and wanted to get your point of view.”

Don’t add mystery by saying, “We need to talk.” This often sends another person into his or her worst nightmares. Then, notice the person’s reaction,  however slight. Does he avert his eyes? Is there a slight stress in her voice? Does he step back or put his hands in his pockets? None of these mean
anything in and of themselves, but they are important to observe as part of the whole message.

If the answer is yes, there is a problem, describe the situation from your perspective without being defensive. Let the other person know you did your best and discuss together how could you have done better. Ask what other resources you should be aware of. Approach it as a problemsolving discussion about the future. Don’t focus on the past.

If the answer is no, and it’s clear you were imagining the problem, don’t make a big deal about it and don’t be embarrassed. Do not, in relief, open up and tell the person what you had imagined. Doing so will give them too much information that may be used later. Instead, use the experience to learn your own behavior pattern better so that next time you’ll be able to tell when you’re being paranoid.

Has this happened to you? If so, share stories and strategies about how you have handled it.


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