Think About How You Think, Part Two: Regarding Others

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 13, Issue No. 12
April, 2015

By Dan Coughlin



You have to have the ability to do a job in order to get a job, but you have to be able to work with people to succeed in that job.

In twenty years of working with thousands of people in over 200 organizations I’ve never seen a job where a person didn’t have to interact with other people. No matter how technical your job may be and no matter how isolated you are from other people, you still have to be effective in working with other people if you want to build a successful career.

One of the truly amazing things to me is how much people complain about the most important variables to their success over the long run. I’m talking about the complaints they make about the people they work with. The most important factors that affect your ability to produce great results are the people you work with and your relationships with them. Your livelihood, your financial success, your capacity to provide for your children, and your professional growth largely depend on the people you work with and the quality of the relationships you have with those people.

If you think I’m wrong about that, try this little exercise. Write down all the things you can accomplish over the next six months at work with no assistance in any way from the people you work with. I’m not just talking about the people you work with directly. I’m including all the people who directly and indirectly affect what you are trying to accomplish including your boss, peers, direct reports, suppliers, and business partners. If none of them do anything at all, what will you accomplish? Go ahead, write it down. My guess is you’re going to have a pretty short list.


If you believe that building successful working relationships is extraordinarily important, then here are five suggestions for you to consider. Keep in mind that your thoughts and your emotions toward other people will dramatically affect your relationships with them.

Thankfulness – appreciate the people you work with.

Take out a sheet of paper and write down the names of key people you work with either directly or indirectly. If someone really irritates you on a regular basis, make sure to put his or her name on the list. Next to each name write down as many positive things as you can think of for that person. Over the course of the next few weeks continually add to your list of positives that you can think of about each person. Every day read your list over.

It is very hard to fake your emotions on a regular basis. If you have negative thoughts about a person and you continually dwell on those thoughts, then your emotions are eventually going to come out in your communication either with the person directly or behind his or her back. When those negative emotions come out, you are going to hurt your relationships at work. On the other hand, if you continually remind yourself of the positive things in the people you work with, those positive emotions will carry over into your communications both with the person directly and about him or her when you are talking with other people.

Appropriateness – know your role in each situation.

What is effective in one situation may be completely ineffective in another situation. I would say this is the one where I have made the most mistakes in my career. Most of the time I get hired to be very honest and straightforward with people. As a management consultant, an executive coach, a keynote speaker, and a seminar leader, I’m usually praised for being professional and tactful and honest with people in offering suggestions for them to consider on how to improve their performances.

However, there have been several situations where that was not my role. For example, one time I was in a meeting at a Fortune 100 company with about a dozen people in the room. I was there because I was serving as an executive coach for a person in the room. My role was to observe how this person interacted with other people in the room. A vice-president from the home office was presenting information on a new pricing strategy for the business. He was explaining what happened when you changed the prices of different products. During his presentation, I thought he had made two important mistakes that could be misleading to the other people in the room when they went back to their work. I spoke up and pointed out what I thought was wrong in the presentation.


Everyone in the room just looked at me and stayed quiet. In the hallway after the meeting the head of the group called me over. He said, “Dan, you were correct in what you said, but you were totally inappropriate in speaking up in front of the vice-president. You made him look bad in front of the others.” He was right, and I was wrong. I could have easily sent the vice-president a private email and shared my thoughts with him about his pricing presentation, and then he could have done what he wanted to with my suggestion. Instead I embarrassed him. It didn’t matter that I was correct in what I was saying. I was ineffective. And I never got hired again by anyone in that office.

Think about your role in a given situation before you decide how to communicate in that setting. It doesn’t mean you can’t be honest, but it does mean you have to determine what is going to be effective both in the short term and the long term. If your goal is to improve results in a sustainable way, then carefully think about what the most effective way is going to be to make your point.

Responsiveness – be positive and engaged

Here are four ways you can interact with another person in a conversation. You can be negative and disengaged, negative and engaged, positive and disengaged, and positive and engaged. Here’s a sample of what each could look like.

Negative and Disengaged (barely giving attention and only with negative comments)

Employee A: I have an idea on how we can increase revenues and profits.
Employee B: (While checking his cell phone and turning his back to Employee A) You haven’t been here long enough to have good ideas on our revenue and profits.

Negative and Engaged (focused on the other person but only negative comments)

Employee A: I have an idea on how we can increase revenues and profits.
Employee B: (Turning to face Employee A and making eye contact) I doubt your idea is going to add much value, but tell me what you’re thinking.

Positive and Disengaged (positive comments but not really paying attention)

Employee A: I have an idea on how we can increase revenues and profits.
Employee B: (While checking his cell phone and turning his back to Employee A) That’s great you have new ideas. We need that around here. I would like to hear your idea some day.

Positive and Engaged (Attentive, listening with empathy, interested, positive comments)

Employee A: I have an idea on how we can increase revenues and profits.
Employee B: (Turning to face Employee A and making eye contact) That sounds great. I’m excited to hear what you’ve been thinking about. Let’s talk right now.

I encourage you to take the time to be positive and engaged when you interact with other people. You don’t have to agree with them. You can listen and then share your thoughts that might very well be different than the other person’s. The reason why it’s so important to be positive and engaged is that you are showing the other person that you value his or her opinions. That in and of itself will help to strengthen your relationship with that person.

If you add genuine empathy to positive and engaged responsiveness, you will deepen the relationship with the other person. True empathy means deeply caring about the other person’s emotions. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but it does mean that you really care whether the other person is excited, disgusted, turned on, or turned off by the situation at work. If you really care about the other person’s emotions and the thoughts that are generating those emotions and you ask the person why he or she is experiencing that emotion, you will respond in a truly caring way. You DO NOT have to solve the other person’s problems. Just listening and caring about his or her emotions can be very helpful.

Forgiveness – be able to forgive someone for doing something you disagreed with or that was wrong.

Sometimes we hang onto hurts for way too long.

If you went for a promotion and the other person got it, then don’t hang on to your feeling of being hurt for the next five years. If you got in trouble at work for doing something that you didn’t do, then make your case as well as you can and then accept the decision and move forward. Forgive the person who made the wrong decision and accept that these things can happen. If you find out that your boss lied to you and she later comes back and apologizes with real sincerity, then accept the apology and forgive her.

If you don’t forgive the other person, then you will carry that negative emotion within you for the rest of your time in that organization. The people you work with are human. They will do things that you think are wrong, and in some cases that really are wrong. If you never forgive anybody for the things they’ve done, then you are going to be operating in a very confined little world. You work with people. People are not perfect. Forgive them whenever you can.

Important Caveat. When someone is sexually, verbally, or physically abusing you, or stealing from the organization, then speak up. Go to Human Resources and explain what happened. Go to your boss’s boss if need be and explain what happened. Go to the CEO and explain. This isn’t about not forgiving. This is about standing up for your own dignity. If you lose your dignity and keep your job, then you have significantly lessened your ability to be effective. If you keep your dignity and lose your job, you can always move forward in your career. This is one of the most sensitive situations a person will face in his or her career. You can still eventually forgive the person for the awful thing he or she has done, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay quiet about it. Fighting for your dignity is worth it.

One of the most powerful examples of forgiveness that I know of was the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I must have been one of the few people on the planet who had not read that book until recently. I encourage you to read it carefully. It says a great deal about how to move on with our lives.

Forgetfulness – let go of things that happened to you

When you’ve forgiven the other person, then truly forget it and move on with your life. I’ve known people who got fired in a job and then carried that anger for more than twenty years. It was not productive at all. They stayed trapped in a negative emotion and were never able to move forward with their careers. I’ve known other people who got fired, understood that the boss had made a decision or that the marketplace had changed, and they went on to flourish later in their careers.


Your thoughts and emotions affect your relationships at work. Your relationships with the people you work directly and indirectly with will largely affect your performance, results, and success over the course of your career. Those relationships will also affect the success of the organization. I encourage you to focus on thankfulness, appropriateness, responsiveness, forgiveness, and forgetfulness.

Republishing Articles

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