I was at a coffee shop the other day where I go to get a lot of writing done. It’s a place where they really care about their coffee, the staff appears to be quite close knit and it seems like they have a good work culture (albeit one that would fit the “hipster” label!).
This particular afternoon, a rather loud older lady with a strong foreign accent came in. It was clear she hadn’t been there before, as she didn’t go to the “right” area to place her order but marched up to the coffee delivery area.
I had made my way to a table by then and had started working, but her loud delivery and expectation to be served immediately and thoroughly caught my attention.
What followed was really interesting. Two of the staff had a pretty visceral reaction to having a customer who was not in their general customer demographic and was behaving in a way they weren’t used to. One guy completely shut down his normally nice persona, and his antipathy to the interloper clearly showed on his face.
The clash of behavioral types and cultures created a rapid escalation of tensions. I’m almost positive that neither side realized how they were coming across, and yet the interaction created tension through the room.
As things were about to turn nasty, a longstanding employee intervened. He asked the woman in a friendly way about her accent, guessing where she was from and getting close. The lady was delighted and started backing down her escalating demands. The other employees started listening to what she wanted and taking her order, and the normal life of the coffee shop started up again.
The Problem with “The Other”
So, why did I find this so fascinating? I think it’s a great example of what can happen in our normal work lives when we deem someone as “the other.” We:
- Shut down
- Stop treating people with respect
- Stop doing our jobs (well, or at all)
- Get angry
- Escalate tensions
- Alienate or disturb others
All of these things were vividly on display in this coffee shop interaction.
How do you know if you’re treating someone as “the other”? If you find yourself after an interaction saying things such as…
- “That makes no sense.”
- “I can’t believe he said that.”
- “She’s unbelievable.”
- “He’s not rational!”
- “I don’t get her.”
…Then guess what? You’re probably seeing whoever you had that conversation with as “the other.”
Why You Should Care
Many people don’t like how this type of interaction makes them feel or how it affects their relationship with the other person. For one, it makes for a far less pleasant work environment, as we often can’t avoid that person entirely. It also leaves us feeling emotional and even out of control.
Not getting a handle on reactions like this can be career-limiting, as playing well with others is a critical skill. (Click here to tweet this thought.) Conflict will happen, but when you start thinking this way, you’ve lost your capacity to have empathy for the other person and any connection you might have had with them fades — which only escalates the negative reactions.
How to Avoid It
Here are a couple ways to get back on track and de-escalate the situation – and, in the process, make yourself and the other person feel better.
When you find yourself having this kind of reaction, you have to do some self-management in the moment to get yourself to calm down.
- Concentrate on emptying your lungs. This specific focus can be more effective than simply telling yourself to “take a deep breath” or breathe.
- Grab onto anything that mentally calms you down — a picture in your head, a mantra or phrase that you find calming.
- Check in with yourself. Conscious recognition that you’re feeling upset with or alienated by this person gives you more distance from the emotion.
- Take a break, if possible. Ask if you can leave and come back in a couple of minutes.
These steps buy you some time to let your thinking brain take over.
Once you’ve gotten yourself under control, do something that helps you reconnect with that other person.
If you’re facing an upset client or customer:
- Ask them something about themselves.
- Find one small thing you can solve. Really good negotiators focus on getting agreement on small things first in difficult negotiations.
- Fall back on the manners your mama drilled into you and ask one of those conventional questions we ask strangers to be polite — it’s a script that both allows you to follow a norm and buys some time to cool down.
If you are facing an irate boss:
- Reach for a phrase that lets them know you’re paying attention, even if it’s difficult for you to do so. The phrase “I hear what you’re saying” is effective here.
- Parse, if you can, what they seem to be upset about. This may not be what they are literally saying.
We won’t like everyone we come across at work, but there are ways we can stop ourselves from seeing them as “the other” and maintain an effective working relationship.
In what situations have you labeled someone as “the other”? How could you have handled it differently?
Katie Slater is a recovering attorney turned professional coach who helps high-potential women from technical and analytical backgrounds as they get more senior. She founded Career Infusion in 2011 to show corporate and individual clients how to use the valuable assets they already have to be more successful and achieve greater growth. Follow them on Twitter @careerinfusion and on Facebook or at firstname.lastname@example.org.