We’ve all heard the saying, “People don’t quit their jobs. They quit their bosses.” It’s an important professional truth and one that can apply to more than just a leader. Challenging relationships with co-workers, contractors, and professional peers, in general, can alter (and at times completely undermine) an otherwise positive workplace experience.

If you’re struggling with difficult relationships at work, here are a few tactics to help you improve things moving forward.

1. Use Keystone Conversations to Start (or Restart) Relationships

It can take as much as a fraction of a second to form an impression of someone. While a more fleshed-out opinion may take a little more digging, you always want to start things off on the right foot — especially if it can avoid creating difficult long-term relationships at work.

In his new book “How to Work With (Almost) Anyone,” Michael Bungay Stanier (also known as MBS) breaks down the importance of using the “Keystone Conversation.” This is a way to lay the groundwork for an open, safe, and productive relationship.

Bungay Stanier explains that a “keystone allows the system to bear stress, stay healthy, and grow stronger over time. We’re striving for the same outcomes with the Keystone Conversation.” This purposeful conversation consists of targeted, thoughtful questions that accomplish three things:

  • Generating shared responsibility in a relationship.
  • Creating permission for the involved parties to discuss the relationship in both the good and bad times.
  • Deepening the understanding of each party for one another.

The Keystone Conversation is most effective at the beginning of a workplace relationship. However, you can also use it to “reset” a toxic professional connection.

2. Accept That Everyone Has a Worldview (Even You)

Challenge yourself to remember that both you and everyone you work with have their own unique worldview. When approached rationally, these natural biases aren’t an issue. They’re simply a reality and even an element that you can consciously use in your communication with others.

Research Associate at the University of Birmingham, Alison J. Gray, points out that “Worldview is a useful concept to discuss the area where values, meaning and purpose, religion, spirituality and existential issues overlap. All individuals have a worldview, but so too do institutions.”

Gray adds that in much of the Western world, the common worldview used to be driven by the single meta-narrative of the Judaeo-Christian faith. However, “In postmodern times we no longer trust in meta-narrative and there is no consensus on how to deal with existential issues, nor on how to label and map the territory; some would deny that the territory even exists.”

Consciously reminding ourselves of the lack of meta-narrative is a great tool in helping us understand where others are coming from. We may all have worldviews and values. And yet, the idea that these are related at a subconscious level is no longer an automatic assumption. This critical perspective can help navigate tricky conversations without putting others on the defensive.

3. Look for Shared Values in Work, Culture, and Life

In her breakdown of worldviews referenced above, Gray mentions a “values-based approach” as something that can help professionals and their companies interact and find appropriate solutions. This concept of prioritizing values is important. It helps find common ground, even in difficult workplace interactions.

Wiley Dawson, Assistant Director of the Hartford Campus of the University of Connecticut, explains this critical concept as follows, “A values-based approach emphasizes and prioritizes the importance of values over all other career decision-making elements such as interest, skills, and personality.” Dawson goes on to break down values-based decision-making as consisting of three different types of values: those of work, culture, and life itself.

If you find that you’re struggling with a co-worker or boss, it can be helpful to step back and consider these three categories. What values do each of you bring to the workplace? What cultures do you hail from? What influential beliefs and mindsets come from past experiences and the way you live your lives?

By broadening your search parameters, you make it easier to find shared values. These are helpful things to focus on, as they represent positive elements that you can use to connect with and relate to an individual.

If you’re navigating a difficult workplace relationship, don’t focus on the negatives. Look for the shared values.

Cultivating the BPR in Every Workplace Relationship

There are many ways to improve a difficult work relationship. This starts with slowing down and maintaining your emotional stability. Remember that you are in control of your reactions and can choose how you respond to others. Take the time you need to be thoughtful in each situation and with each interaction, and remember the three tactics above to help you remain constructive and positive.

Start each relationship off with the Keystone Conversation. Remember that everyone has a worldview — and that’s not a bad thing. Look for shared values that provide common ground.

These basic behaviors are the fundamental building blocks of healthy relationships. They don’t have to create incredible friendships or world-shaking professional connections. They simply make it easier to navigate each day at the office. As MBS says, the primary goal with every relationship is to “actively build the Best Possible Relationship (BPR).” Whatever the situation may be, make sure you’re making the most of each connection, conversation, and interaction in your professional life.

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