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Transforming Difficult Relationships by Starting with You

Six steps you can take to strengthen challenging relationships

· Communication,Mindset,Management,Difficult People,Personal Development

Difficult working relationships are a frequent topic that brings people to coaching. Even if difficult people aren’t the primary driver of coaching, I find that they come up in sessions as clients process current challenges.

Last year, I had the opportunity to work with a product marketing leader. Let’s call him Scott. Scott had had a successful career in the 12 years since graduating from business school. He’d worked in brand management for blue chip consumer products companies before transitioning into tech. His roles had increased in responsibility, and the startup he was currently working for was scaling quickly.

All that aside, Scott was feeling uncertain about his future in product marketing and with this company. His new manager Jacob had never worked in product marketing. Scott felt that Jacob lacked tact, didn’t understand what Scott did and didn’t know how to make use of Scott as a team member. On top of that, Scott found it challenging to work with one of his peers. Scott was wondering if he needed to look for another job.

I told Scott that I can only coach him, not the people he wants to change. They aren’t in the room, and we can’t make someone else change. Relationships are systems. If we want to change the output, the one thing in our control is our input. Said another way, if Scott and Jacob are in a choreographed dance, Scott changing his steps opens up the possibility that Jacob’s moves will change as well. Recognizing that even if he moved to a new job, he was almost guaranteed to come across relationship challenges, Scott committed to building awareness about how he could develop the skills of working with difficult people.

The ultimate goal of coaching is for the client to develop the awareness and skills to apply the learnings from their immediate work to future situations, fulfilling the “teach a person to fish” metaphor. With that in mind, Scott and I reflected on seven steps he took to strengthen his relationship with his manager, his peers and his direct reports. While these insights are Scott’s, the themes have broad applications to transforming working relationships:

  1. Appreciate the Feedback, Own the Solution: Shortly after the coaching began, Scott and Jacob met for a mid-year review. Jacob provided some direct feedback about what he wanted to see more of from Scott. While it was hard to hear this, Scott was grateful for clarity about what he could improve. He took it a step further and sent a note thanking Jacob for the feedback, and excitedly shared his action plan. It made Scott the owner of the solution, and it allowed Jacob to feel heard and become a partner in Scott’s progress. 
  2. Understand What's Important to You: Scott built in more time to prepare for his one-on-one meetings with Jacob. This allowed him to process his priorities and recommendations. Rather than going into the meeting “spraying information” without a clear ask or next step, Scott presented as focused, capable and having a point-of-view. This also meant occasionally holding back on something until it was ready. 
  3. Push through the Awkwardness to Unearth What’s True: When Alex, a new VP of Business Development joined the team, Scott was energized by his ability to assemble the team and take action. A month into his tenure, Alex had some harsh feedback on a partnership pitch deck that Scott’s team had created. Rather than dwell on the emotions of hearing the deck missed the mark, Scott met with Alex to get to the crux of the issue. Alex was getting asked questions that he couldn’t answer because the narrative wasn’t right. By staying open, curious, and ready to learn from the feedback, Scott was able to make a step-change in the effectiveness of the deck, and strengthen his relationship with Alex in the process. They established a pattern of test, learn, and test again, and it led to bigger opportunities. 
  4. Set Your Own Goals: Leaders in the passenger seat of their careers wait for someone else to set team goals. When Scott started proactively setting goals for the team, he more easily identified focus areas and measurement tools. If they were missing a measurement tool, or a deliverable from another department, they knew to ask for it. Individual team members were then empowered to make decisions about where they spent their time based on how they could contribute to the goals. 
  5. Ask “What will success look like?”: One of Scott’s challenging cross-functional partners had a habit of providing vague direction and unrealistic goals. Eager to be a team player, Scott would do his best to work with what was provided. This often resulted in suboptimal results. Scott started asking himself “What would success look like?” If he didn’t have a clear answer with the information provided, he'd ask the stakeholder for clarification. 
  6. Switch Roles: When Scott got stuck on the best course of action with Jacob, I’d ask him what he’d want to happen if he were the manager. He could easily respond with what he appreciates from his direct reports. Conversely, the steps he took to strengthen the relationship with Jacob prompted feedback he wanted to give to his directs so that they could make adjustments. This included asking them to come to him with recommendations. 

Six months after our work began, Scott had transformed. His was receiving positive feedback form Jacob, as well as the c-suite. He felt more confident in his contributions to the company, and as a result, he’d taken a more proactive role in guiding the direction of the business. Instead of wondering if he needed to leave, Scott felt ready to discuss opportunities for advancement.

 

Challenging working relationships will continue to be a part of life that are almost as certain as death and taxes. Shifting the focus from the change you want to see in a difficult person to the changes you can make in yourself will help you adapt, grow and ultimately strengthen the relationship.

The ultimate goal of coaching is for the client to develop the awareness and skills to apply the learnings from their immediate work to future situations, fulfilling the “teach a person to fish” metaphor. With that in mind, Scott and I reflected on seven steps he took to strengthen his relationship with his manager, his peers and his direct reports. While these insights are Scott’s, the themes have broad applications to transforming working relationships:

  1. Appreciate the Feedback, Own the Solution: Shortly after the coaching began, Scott and Jacob met for a mid-year review. Jacob provided some direct feedback about what he wanted to see more of from Scott. While it was hard to hear this, Scott was grateful for clarity about what he could improve. He took it a step further and sent a note thanking Jacob for the feedback, and excitedly shared his action plan. It made Scott the owner of the solution, and it allowed Jacob to feel heard and become a partner in Scott’s progress. 
  2. Understand What's Important to You: Scott built in more time to prepare for his one-on-one meetings with Jacob. This allowed him to process his priorities and recommendations. Rather than going into the meeting “spraying information” without a clear ask or next step, Scott presented as focused, capable and having a point-of-view. This also meant occasionally holding back on something until it was ready. 
  3. Push through the Awkwardness to Unearth What’s True: When Alex, a new VP of Business Development joined the team, Scott was energized by his ability to assemble the team and take action. A month into his tenure, Alex had some harsh feedback on a partnership pitch deck that Scott’s team had created. Rather than dwell on the emotions of hearing the deck missed the mark, Scott met with Alex to get to the crux of the issue. Alex was getting asked questions that he couldn’t answer because the narrative wasn’t right. By staying open, curious, and ready to learn from the feedback, Scott was able to make a step-change in the effectiveness of the deck, and strengthen his relationship with Alex in the process. They established a pattern of test, learn, and test again, and it led to bigger opportunities. 
  4. Set Your Own Goals: Leaders in the passenger seat of their careers wait for someone else to set team goals. When Scott started proactively setting goals for the team, he more easily identified focus areas and measurement tools. If they were missing a measurement tool, or a deliverable from another department, they knew to ask for it. Individual team members were then empowered to make decisions about where they spent their time based on how they could contribute to the goals. 
  5. Ask “What will success look like?”: One of Scott’s challenging cross-functional partners had a habit of providing vague direction and unrealistic goals. Eager to be a team player, Scott would do his best to work with what was provided. This often resulted in suboptimal results. Scott started asking himself “What would success look like?” If he didn’t have a clear answer with the information provided, he'd ask the stakeholder for clarification. 
  6. Switch Roles: When Scott got stuck on the best course of action with Jacob, I’d ask him what he’d want to happen if he were the manager. He could easily respond with what he appreciates from his direct reports. Conversely, the steps he took to strengthen the relationship with Jacob prompted feedback he wanted to give to his directs so that they could make adjustments. This included asking them to come to him with recommendations. 

Six months after our work began, Scott had transformed. His was receiving positive feedback form Jacob, as well as the c-suite. He felt more confident in his contributions to the company, and as a result, he’d taken a more proactive role in guiding the direction of the business. Instead of wondering if he needed to leave, Scott felt ready to discuss opportunities for advancement.

Challenging working relationships will continue to be a part of life that are almost as certain as death and taxes. Shifting the focus from the change you want to see in a difficult person to the changes you can make in yourself will help you adapt, grow and ultimately strengthen the relationship.

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