From The Under 35 Project: How not to tell a colleague to **** off

A new piece from the Under 35 Project, in which Sarah Maynard tries to be more patient with a disagreeable coworker.

Sarah Maynard
11 May 2012

Together with our friend, author Lodro Rinzler, Lion’s Roar has been sharing selections from Shambhala Publications’ Under 35 Project, which gathers original writings from younger Buddhist practitioners. May’s theme is “Work,” and in this piece, Sarah Maynard tries to be more patient with a disagreeable coworker.

“Sarah has hit on something that we all face in our work life — that difficult person we simply can’t wish away,” Lodro says. “They are there, day after day, presenting us with an opportunity to practice.”

How not to tell a colleague to **** off

A few years ago I worked with someone who truly shook my practice. I was just at the start of “serious” practice and was definitely not ready for such a challenge. Thankfully for me, it has been a rare occurrence, but every so often in life you encounter someone who makes you want to gouge your eyes out and shove them in your ears so you no longer have to see or hear their absurdities. If there’s anything I can’t take, it’s bad manners, and without meaning to sound too much like my mum, what does it really cost to be polite? This particular colleague was a pure bully, bringing a very special combination of bad manners (to put it politely) and chaos.

The situation was made worse by the fact that I had worked so hard to get this job at a prestigious hospital. And in a matter of weeks, I could feel her wearing away at my delicately constructed layers of confidence. And this was the person I was required to work most closely with in my job. This post isn’t going to be all rant, but in the interest of being informative, I was faced with a colleague who ignored me when I said good morning and goodbye, and who actively disagreed with everything I said, professionally or otherwise. Despite being at a similar level as this colleague, I was treated as the skivvy, doing all the jobs she didn’t want to do.

Far from feeling like a grown-up professional, I was 15 again and back in the playground dealing with the school bully. Thankfully I had come some way from the modes of retaliation I opted for at school, but she certainly unleashed years of built-up frustration at a particular breed of girls. There was definitely something in the fact that I was in a large all-female department; it was as if some primitive powers of destructive competition would meander their way through the department on a daily basis.

So, I began working on trying to make life more bearable primarily for myself and resisting the urge to tell her precisely and explicitly what I thought of her. Of course, it did go through my mind to try to reason with her in a very adult fashion and tackle things head on, but the thought of doing this made me feel physically nauseous, and I feared making things even worse than they already were. So instead I added her into my daily practice as the ‘difficult person’ in my metta bhavana (loving kindness) practice. And my god, did it stretch me. I had to work up to just picturing her in the practice, let alone sending any metta. It surprised me to realize, however, that the first stage of sending myself metta was every bit as important as the latter stages. It was okay to realize that I was suffering too.

After some weeks I was finally able to tolerate a short period of sending her metta, and I had a few ‘light bulb’ moments. I realized she was clearly suffering herself, as no one at peace with herself could display such behavior. I also realized I wasn’t the only person around her she caused to suffer, and there were most likely people who were less able to cope with this than me. Finally, I decided there must be people out there in the world who find her utterly agreeable. Dzogchen Ponlop makes a very apt observation of an angry work colleague: “Appreciate that she’s caught up in a pattern of confusion and that her confusion causes her more pain than it’s causing you, because it touches all parts of her life. You’re only dealing with it at the office.” How true — if only I had read this at the time!

It’s also so easy to make other people’s issues about us. All I could think at the start was “What the hell have I done to her?” “What’s so awful about me that she can’t stand?” This is a great example of the ego closing in and shutting down our thinking. Clearly, the world does not revolve around me, although this feels like a revelation on some days.

Slowly… very slowly… things started to shift. I watched the frustrations build up in myself as my ego was seriously threatened, and then slowly dissipate. I let go of the resistance to her behavior. It was what it was. I tried to help those around her who she upset. After some months, I noticed that at times (on a good day) I could approach her slightly more compassionately.

This stood out for me on two particular occasions. The first was her birthday, when her card was making the rounds to be signed. While I had the impulse to write something decidedly rude on it, I paused and sat deep in thought, wanting to say something kind, but also genuine. So it turned out I could find a few words. The other occasion was when I held the door open for her. She did not acknowledge me — not even a bit of eye contact — but waltzed straight past without a “thank you” in sight. This was a situation that would have infuriated me on a normal day, but on this day something different happened. I laughed. So was it the perfect response? No, probably not. But it was progress from the blind rage I had felt earlier. And the weird thing was that the laughter was at both of us: her for her blatant rudeness, and me for my incessant desire for impeccable manners.

So on my last day at my work, I thanked her and said goodbye. I didn’t lie; I didn’t tell her I was sad to be leaving or that I would miss her, but I did work hard to find something kind and constructive to say. And she ignored me, naturally.

So what happened to my colleague? Well, rumor has it she was disciplined after I left. And me? Well, I haven’t experienced such progress in my metta bhavana practice since.

Sarah Maynard

Sarah Maynard is a clinical psychologist living in Kent, UK. She has been practicing within the Triratna Buddhist community for the past year and a half.