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Jan 21, 2014

So what if your boss is the person you don’t get along with?

It’s like we just don’t click, and neither of us is talking about it. Should I be the one who brings it up? Wait until my boss does? Or just go look for another job?”

These questions about communicating with the boss are some of the most frequent issues our trainers hear from learners in our interpersonal skills programs.

The answer? Like so many other things, it depends.

Here’s the qualifying question: In most situations, does your boss seem like an emotionally stable person? If so, then give open, direct communication a chance to work.

The following guidelines provide a process that can repair many strained relationships — at work and at home:

1. Do the two-step

I’m not suggesting a dance step, but rather a question, followed by a monologue.

If the relationship rift has been growing for a long while, don’t expect that you’ll accomplish much in a quick “let’s just sit down and talk this over” discussion. Chances are that if you’ve come to the conclusion that you “don’t get along,” the situation has deteriorated beyond what a simple hour’s discussion can mend.

Both of you will likely have several grievances and will feel the urge to react defensively to what the other has to say. The first step in this dance is to listen.

Suggest the framework of this three-meeting discussion to be held on three different days. Then volunteer to be the first to play the role of listener for the initial discussion. Pose this question for your first get-together about “improving the working relationship.”

You might set it up this way: “The reason I suggested this discussion is that you and I often seem to have difficulty in communicating on various things (seem to be butting heads over various issues). How do you see the issue, and what do you think causes the difficulty?”

Then listen — without defense or a visible emotional reaction. And don’t think this will be easy! End the meeting and discussion with, “I’d like to think over what you’ve said for a few days. Then I’d like to talk again. Would you be open to that?”

2. Repeat the two-step

Reverse roles. Tactfully suggest that your boss listen to how you see the situation — the difficulties between you two and how you might improve the working relationship.

“Thank you for giving me time to think over what you said last time. I’ve given your comments serious thought. I agree about X and Y. Here’s how I see some of the difficulty in the relationship happening and how the communication might improve…”

End by asking your boss to think over what you’ve said and asking if you could get back together a week later to draw some conclusions about “how to move forward.” You’ve done the two-step; now you’re asking for the last dance.

3. Draw conclusions

Take the initiative in asking for a third meeting “for the purpose of knowing how to make changes to better align yourself with what the boss wants and the requirements for the job.”

The previous two-step discussions slow things down and give each of you time to analyze the other person’s monologue, consider the truth in it, discover good intentions, and rediscover motivations for working together. The reflection time between the three discussions serves several purposes:

  • It takes the pressure off you and your boss to respond and defend what is being said.
  • It gives you time to regain your emotional equilibrium, respond accurately, and phrase things respectfully, directly, and tactfully.
  • It gives you time to interpret and analyze the truth about what the other has said.

This discussion is about finding common ground: Where do you agree? How can you collaborate to make the outcome better for both of you? What can you offer to change or do differently to please your boss or improve the relationship?

What will your boss change or do differently? Is no one willing to make a change?

4. Decide

After this two-step dance about whether you can learn to communicate openly, then you will be better able to make the larger decision: to stay or go.

Going may involve moving to another team, department, or employer altogether. But at least you will be making the break decisively — rather than feeling dreadful and downcast, dying a slow death daily as you drag yourself to work.

Withdrawing into silence is rarely the answer. Communicating directly with tact heals the spirit.

What communication tips have you found helpful in turning around a difficult situation with a boss?

This was originally published on Dianna Booher’s Booher Banter blog.

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