By Karen O’Connor
In a company where I once worked, two of the employees in my department stopped speaking to one another. Period. Each said the other was difficult and disrespectful. They had no intention of bridging the gap or healing the hurt. They simply avoided one another when they attended a meeting or even an office party. And from time to time I’d hear one speak about the other in a negative way, apparently looking for people to take sides.
I could see both points of view, but I cringed at the way they handled the situation. Surely there was some way for them to come together. When I left the company a few months later, there had been no change that I could see.
Everyone comes up against disrespectful people at some point in life. We can’t avoid it. But we can do something about it. And we don’t have to quit our jobs to get relief.
People who behave in rude, mean-spirited, and angry ways are hard to handle. There’s no question about that. We might be tempted to simply walk away and ignore them. On the other hand, maybe the Lord has put them in our paths so we can bring the light of his love into their lives. It’s worth a try. God never gives up on us, so let’s not be quick to give up on others—especially those who are in the greatest need of acceptance and understanding. I often wonder if workplace crime could be lessened or even avoided by someone reaching out to a potential offender before it’s too late.
The following are a few steps we can take to break through to people who have shut themselves off from others by their rude and disrespectful behavior:
1. Invite the person to have coffee or lunch with you (to open the door to a friendship).
Recently I attended a publishing conference. While sitting at a table with several other women, I noticed everyone contributed to the conversation except one. Trina seemed to ignore the others, making no effort to participate. Then it occurred to me that maybe she was simply shy. I decided to think the best instead of the worst.
That evening in the dining room Trina was sitting alone, although there were plenty of open spaces at a variety of tables. I took a chance—with heart pounding—and approached her. “Are you saving a seat for someone?” I asked. “May I join you?” She shook her head and gestured to the chair next to hers. “I didn’t have a chance to talk with you earlier, and I’d like to get to know you. I saw some of your books on the author table.” Suddenly Trina brightened. “Sure.” She smiled and turned to face me as I sat down.
“Do not say, ‘I’ll pay you back for this wrong!’ Wait for the Lord, and he will avenge you” (Proverbs 20:22).
2. Ask open-ended questions to get the person talking (about his or her life and interests).
From there Trina and I carried on a long conversation about the kinds of writing she does, her family, her interests, and her hobbies. She poured out her life within minutes, as though she’d been waiting for days for someone to talk to her. In that moment, I totally revised my opinion of this woman, who at first seemed disrespectful by closing herself off to others. As it turns out, she simply needed someone to invite her to speak—and then she did. I’m so glad I took the first step instead of walking away with an inaccurate impression of her.
“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
3. Suggest an experience you can enjoy together (as a gesture of goodwill).
My husband, Charles, worked for a time with a man named Tim, who liked to fill any empty space with so-called funny comments targeted at other employees. He thought he was a comedian, and if anyone didn’t agree or avoided his cracks, he took offense, blaming them for not being able to take a joke. Charles realized how lonely the man was, so instead of avoiding Tim, he chatted back and forth, even if he sometimes felt abused by Tim’s insensitivity. One day Charles received a couple of tickets to a basketball game from a client. He decided to invite Tim to join him. Tim was so surprised by the gesture he blinked back tears. In that moment he didn’t have a joke to share. He simply said, “Thanks. That’d be great.” What a gift that was for Charles.
“Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (Isaiah 51:11).
4. Share a personal challenge or flaw (to show your humanity).
“I thought that every time a colleague and I had a disagreement I had to confront him or her. Now I see that all I have to do is ask to talk things over and promise to listen. I can’t believe the difference this has made in my work relationships.” These comments are from Anna, who worked in sales and marketing and often tolerated snide remarks from some of the men.
Another friend, Katherine, described her experience: “In one situation where I worked, I sent an email to a person I felt uneasy with. She seemed to enjoy putting me down and showing her authority in front of our coworkers. One day I asked to meet for a walk during our lunch hour. I told her I thrived on encouragement and asked her to show me some of her sales techniques so I could be more successful.” The result was a victory for both women, according to Katherine. “We never became good friends,” she said, “but we were able to be comfortable with one another and work in the same environment without tension. She had some really good ideas that actually helped me thrive, so I’ll always be grateful for that.”
“That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers” (Psalm 1:3).
5. Learn from others, and they will learn from you (and both will be blessed).
It may seem ridiculous to consider learning from someone who shows disrespect toward you and others, but it’s possible and may even be good for you. I remember my father dealing with some very hurtful behavior on the part of his boss at work. Dad felt put down because he didn’t have a college degree and because he went through a pretty tough learning curve in his job. He often came home and poured out his upset around the dinner table.
But over the years I recall my dad’s boss and his wife visiting our home during the holidays or for some other special occasion. Mr. Barnes became one of Dad’s good friends. It seems the man softened as he got older and as he opened himself to our family. He and his wife did not have any children, and I believe the sweet influence of our home and the laughter and openness of us kids gave him a perspective on my father he’d never had before.
My dad softened too and admitted that Mr. Barnes had good advice, even though he had a confrontational way of presenting it. When Mr. Barnes was about to retire because of poor health, he promoted my dad to vice president of the company. It was a victory for both men.
“For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory” (Deuteronomy 20:4).
When people feel your allegiance and support, they will naturally be drawn to you. You may be surprised that as you come alongside a person you have perceived to be disrespectful, you may actually make a new friend.
Karen O’Connor is a freelance writer from Watsonville, California (www.karenoconnor.com).
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