A few years ago, I had a coworker who was particularly unfriendly from the start. She barely even acknowledged me when I’d see her and say hello. Then one day, it changed.
The coworker, whom I’ll call Carrie, dropped by my office and asked for advice about how to deal with her supervisor. I appreciated the fact that Carrie trusted my advice, but I was uncomfortable with the conversation. She seemed to be gossiping more than trying to fix the problem, so I tried to turn the conversation to a more positive direction.
“That sounds frustrating, but you can’t fix the other person,” I said. “The only person you can work on is you. If you spend your energy trying to fix someone you can’t control, you’re just going to feel frustrated and helpless.”
She laughed and said, “You remind me of Joel Osteen.”
I repeated my advice with my best twangy Osteen impression and wrapped up the conversation, sincerely hoping she might actually change her behavior. She didn’t.
The Effect of Bluntness
When Carrie would see me, she always found a way to make the conversation about her supervisor. I would give a similar motivational talk and redirect the conversation, but it never seemed to work. It became apparent that gossiping about her supervisor was how Carrie connected to other people. And I decided I wasn’t going to be one of those people anymore.
The next time Carrie tried to strike up a gossipy conversation about her supervisor, I was more direct.
“I understand that you’re frustrated with your supervisor, but if you aren’t careful, it will be the only way you can connect with people at work. You’ll basically be using people to listen to you vent about your supervisor.”
(Yes, I realize this was blunt, but polite redirection had failed multiple times at this point.)
Carrie looked visibly uncomfortable, abruptly ended the conversation, and totally avoided me after that. Even when I would speak in the hallway, she would mumble an unintelligible response and look past me.
We had no relationship unless I was willing to listen to her vent. We couldn’t be friends unless we shared a common enemy. In other words, we weren’t really friends.
Not a Real Friendship
My relationship with Carrie was based on emotional triangulation, something Edwin Friedman warns against in his book, Failure of Nerve. The common denominator in all triangulated relationships is that there’s some negative third pillar — some frustration or offense — that keeps the relationship together. And it happens more easily than we realize.
We find ourselves always venting about the same subject to a friend. We repeatedly share “prayer requests” that are really passive-aggressive ways of gossiping. It’s cowardly — we’re being chickens who can’t deal with our own stuff so we find other people who will take on our anxieties and affirm our offenses.
There’s nothing wrong with being transparent about our struggles when we talk with friends, but we just need to make sure it’s not the only thing we’re talking about. We’ve got to redirect ourselves and “[f]ix our thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:8, NLT).
As we fix our thoughts on the true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable things in the people who frustrate us, we’ll find that it affects the way we speak about them. No doubt, that takes hard work, and we may lose relationships with people like my coworker. But we’ll gain the respect of real friends who will probably be grateful to have a relationship that’s based on something more than shared offenses.