Elements of a difficult conversation

Q I worked for a lousy boss during a turnaround situation. I performed well, but he treated me poorly and never told me how I could improve. We’ve moved on, and he called to catch-up. We should get along fabulously, and during our call, I told him how much I admired his skills and accomplishments. Again, he had no feedback for me. It was all one-way. Should I cut him out of my life because of how he treated me? I want to understand what motivated his behavior.

A This could be a communication issue and nothing personal. Some people just don’t compliment others or give positive feedback. They don’t consider their impact on others. There can also be weird power struggles between managers that undermine relationships. Given you were in a turnaround, maybe he was so stressed he wasn’t at his best. So maybe he’s a great guy, you simply misunderstood, and you should be friends going forward.

But you’re still having real conflicts around this, however. Maybe he had real reasons he acted as he did. First and foremost, take care of yourself. Stop thinking of him as your “boss,” and think of him as a peer, who’s doing the best he knows how to do.

Then forgive him. Not for any spiritual reason (though that can’t hurt), and not for his sake. Forgive him for your sake. He may be doing his best, and that “best” might not be what you need. But he is who he is—problems and all—and you are who you are. And both of you are just fine, even if you don’t mix well together. Forgiveness is what helps you lot go of the emotion and make the rest of this easy. Once it’s easy, you’ll be in a better mental place to choose your next action.

What do you want? If you want a friendship (professional or otherwise) with this man, you need to fix the relationship. Talk. Tell him what’s going on, and ask for his side of the story. He’s not your boss; he’s your peer. You have nothing to lose. “I would like a continued relationship with you, but I feel apprehensive about our past relationship and would like to understand your perspective. Would that be OK?”

Have a discovery conversation. Get both your perceptions of the facts of what happened. Share your feelings about it, in an inquiring way. And also (this is the hard part) discuss the impact it has on your sense of identity. Did you feel threatened? Did he? Keep the tone light–keep it an exploration.

Check out the book “Difficult Conversations” for a great framework for such conversations. At best, you might discover it’s all a misunderstanding. At worst, you still won’t connect and you’ll go your separate ways. My own experience is that some of my greatest friends and colleagues have started out with misunderstandings and personality clashes.

If you want to cut the ties now, I would simply stop returning his calls and emails. Be too busy to talk for more than a few minutes. Don’t get personal or attacking, just let him drift back out of your life.

I hope this helps!

Putting it to work:

  • Choose an ambiguous or incomplete relationship that is weighing you down.
  • Forgive the person, so you can move on with resolving the relationship.
  • If you want to break it off, commit to yourself that you’ll do so and stop engaging with the person.
  • If you want to continue, have a “difficult conversation” in which you share your perception of what happened, how you felt about it, and what that meant to you about who you are. Inquire to understand their perceptions, feelings, and identity as well.

Dealing with a difficult ex-boss

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