Q: I work closely with one of our executives, and he often will swoop in with questions that have no context and sound critical of what I’m doing. It upsets me, and then when I set up a meeting to clear the air, he backs down. How can I change this dynamic? —Karl, 48, senior director, financial analysis
A: A set pattern like this gives you plenty of opportunity to assess the dynamics and weigh your options.
Choose a time when you are not feeling bothered to do some reflection. As you think about past incidents, try to identify the triggers that bring out this behavior in him. Visualize the emotions that he is transmitting to try to understand if he is being driven by anger, fear, frustration or some other strong emotion.
It’s not unusual for someone to then bring these feelings to bear in their interactions with others. If this is the case, though, there may not be much you can do to stop him.
Your solution then will be to learn to buffer yourself so that you don’t internalize his dynamics. More on that later.
Depending on the nature of your relationship, you may be able to have a candid conversation about these interactions and the negative effect they have on you.
This is a time for “I statements” to avoid triggering defensiveness on his part. If you are not familiar with this technique, there are lots of resources online. The essence is to create statements that focus on your feelings, the event, the impact, and what you would prefer instead.
For example, you might say, “I feel anxious when you fire questions at me with no context. As a result, I’m less productive and it takes longer to provide the information you need. I would like it if you would give me advance warning to prepare.”
When this goes well, it opens the other person’s eyes to the effect of their behavior. As an optimist, I believe that most people don’t intend to be jerks and will try to do better. You can then develop a shared strategy for interacting constructively.
At the same time, if they are impulsive by nature and are being reactive to their senior leaders, they may have trouble forming a new habit.
That’s where we come back to your personal buffering.
First you need to understand your own triggers. Are your interactions with him more fraught than with other people you engage with? Perhaps he even just reminds you of someone from your past. Then keep in mind that your old reactions may no longer be serving you well.
Buffer inwardly. Visualize a shield of some sort that keeps his emotions off you, even as you’re interacting. Use your breath to stay centered.
Buffer externally. When he raises issues out of the blue, take charge. Get him focused, be able to take notes, and remind him of your communication agreement.
Be persistent and advocate for your needs, while also being a cooperative partner and colleague. In most cases, this approach will lead to a more positive and productive working relationship.