How do you react when a colleague makes you angry? Do you tell them how you feel on the spot, or brood over the interaction in private?
People respond to perceived offenses in many different ways. Abraham Lincoln famously wrote what he called “hot letters” – letters that told the recipient in no uncertain terms exactly how he felt, but which he never sent.
While venting your frustrations in an unsent letter is an effective way of processing how you feel about a situation, it doesn’t actually deal with the conflict. Unresolved conflict can build up in our minds like a giant stack of IOUs, an unconscious presence every time we interact with that person going forward.
It’s difficult to truly connect with someone when you are holding grudges against them. It’s also difficult to enjoy work when you feel angry and bitter all the time.
The next time you find yourself bristling with anger at the memory of a colleague’s words or actions, try this approach.
- Name exactly what they did that bothered you. This is the where the “hot letter” approach comes in handy. What exactly was it that set you on edge? Was it the insolent tone of voice that implied that your idea didn’t have value? Was it the fact that you were left out of a key project? Be specific.
- Acknowledge the presence of a debt. If your colleague Jim did something that you are holding against him, then in your mind there is a debt. “Jim did ____ to me; therefore he owes me ____.” Name what you feel Jim owes you. Is it an apology? Feelings of remorse or guilt? When we actually stop to think about it, the things we feel people owe us may sound pretty silly, but this is an important step in dealing with the offense.
- Write a “contract” to release the debt. Forgiveness is an abstract concept for many people, so thinking of it in terms of a contract makes the process very concrete. Write down what the offense was, how it made you feel, and what you believe the person owes you. Then write something like, “I choose to no longer hold this offense against you. You no longer owe me _____.” Sign and date the contract so that if you ever are tempted to bring up the same debt, you have a visual reminder that you have already dealt with it. As with Lincoln’s “hot letters,” these contracts are best to keep private.
The purpose of the exercise above is to adjust your own attitude so that you can have healthy interactions with your colleagues without dragging in a lot of baggage from the past. Of course, some offenses require conversations in order to resolve, but this approach is an effective way to deal with the many daily irritations that can cloud your view of your workplace.
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