What’s the Problem?
Dear Coach – My peer’s direct reports frequently approach me for guidance on dealing with her sometimes harsh and critical behavior. They’ve tried bringing it up with her directly but consistently get shut down.
She’s a close colleague of mine and we have a long history of collaboration. However, she can get defensive and aggressive, which makes me nervous to talk to her on this topic. Should I confront her anyway? And if so, what’s the best approach?
Nervous Colleague Confronter
First, let’s unpack this. Your question tells us that:
- You assume that because this colleague has been defensive in the past, she will certainly be defensive now.
- You assume you will not be able to communicate through her defensiveness.
- Her defensiveness triggers you and blocks access to your feelings of care, concern, and friendship.
So, exactly how is your problem a power problem? A few thoughts:
- This situation is causing you to minimize your impact and influence out of fear.
- You’re overestimating her reactivity while simultaneously underestimating your capacity to communicate effectively.
- Even if the response is defensive or aggressive, you have the tools and ability to deal with that behavior in others.
What’s the Solution?
To be able to respond and move forward productively, you’ll need to do several things, including:
- Believe this peer needs help, even if she doesn’t recognize it.
- Understand you’re someone who can help her, as a close colleague and friend.
- Get in touch with your ability to communicate and offer help in a thoughtful way.
- Approach the situation with a curiosity mindset, rather than blame. Be open to understanding the situation beyond just what you’ve heard from direct reports.
A good first step is to prepare what you plan to say and how you plan to say it, while strategizing how you’ll handle their reaction. This is not a conversation you want to have on the fly.
Plan to be objective without making judgments; simply reiterate that you’ve been approached by several of her direct reports, which is unusual, and here’s what they had to say.
Since this is a close colleague of yours, handling this conversation with care and sensitivity is critical. Use that curiosity mindset we mentioned previously to inquire what’s going on, how she perceives the situation, how she’s doing, and what you can do to help.
If you do get a defensive or aggressive reaction, stay calm and centered so you’re not fighting fire with fire. You can acknowledge your peer’s point of view while still standing your ground and offering to problem-solve together.
Hopefully, this approach leads to a shift in behavior that benefits you, your colleague, and her direct reports for a long time to come.
Best of luck!