I Don’t Like You. Now what?
The Three Moves You Must Make
Four simple words. Only four. But these little words have the potential to do tremendous damage to your productivity, your team’s culture, and your career trajectory. Whether spoken by you or about you, they can be devastating. Of course, the four words are: I don’t like you.
As parents we chastise our kids for saying things like, “There’s a new boy in my class and I don’t like him.” Most of us would stop whatever we were doing to pursue a teachable moment with our child. Why? Because we don’t want our children to form unfair biases against people they don’t really know. Just because someone is new or different and not part of your familiar group of friends is no reason not to like them, we would say with sincere conviction.
Yet as adults, we don’t always practice what we preach. Whether it’s a new team member or a new executive who lives layers above us on the organization chart, we can form judgements based on vague perceptions. Sometimes we even verbalize our uncertain reasoning by saying things like, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about her that I just don’t like.” With others, however, we can clearly describe each off-putting behavior in great detail. Either way, the outcome is the same: four words that do damage.
If your struggling to accept the idea that people quickly and easily form negative opinions about someone they don’t personally know, look no further than the world of politics to be convinced. Like it or not, we demonize those who are in the opposite party or we demonize particular officials because we disagree with their policies, the things they say or the way they say them, or the old reliable, he simply looks like a crook. I won’t use any names, because partisan preference swings both ways. But if you’re honest, there are certain public figures who appear on the news or Sunday talk shows that evoke a visceral response.
While yelling at the television probably does little harm (unless you live in an apartment with thin walls), forming a negative opinion about someone with whom you must work on a daily basis may impede performance. Here’s the problem in a nutshell: perceptions cause you to tell yourself stories, your stories create emotions, and your emotions affect the way you engage.
As difficult as it might be to fathom, there may be some folks who have told some unflattering stories about you as well. Whether deserved or not, their stories may influence their willingness to collaborate on an important project, share important information, or cause them to say things that damage to your reputation.
If you’re ever on either side of that statement, here are three moves you should make to overcome the impact of poor perceptions:
No one—not even the best among us—is immune from forming premature judgments about colleagues. Even one of America’s greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln, admitted that he didn’t appreciate certain people—and who could blame him? A nation divided over the horrific practice of slavery, good men dying on a daily basis, and a cabinet filled with political rivals made for tense relationships. But Lincoln’s response reflects both his wisdom and character. He said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
I have put Lincoln’s example to the test on numerous occasions. I’m always amazed at how difficult it is to dislike someone after taking the time to get to know them well. Learning what’s important to them, what moves them, and what life experiences shaped them, causes your heart to somehow find grace for their humanity. This is a great technique for combating stereotypes as well.
I’ve never understood the idiom “curiosity killed the cat” (sorry animal lovers). The message suggests that unnecessary investigation is dangerous, but I’ve rarely found this to be the case in relationships. Staying open minded and accepting the fact that there may be other valid perspectives on an issue—and then working to understand the reasoning that brings people to that position—is usually extremely valuable.
The essence of curiosity is an absence of certainty. This lack of certainty allows us to remain open toward other people and unable to form firm negative opinions about them. Trying to answer a series of why questions (e.g., I wonder why she didn’t speak up in the meeting, I wonder why he is pursuing that project…) will keep you curious and engaged—and too busy to label someone unfairly.
Let’s face it. Nobody’s perfect. Acknowledging this about oneself is an important starting point for building relationships with others. It creates compassion. On the other end of the spectrum are those who lack humility, lack compassion, and lack friends. We call them narcissists.
Lest anyone think that humble leaders can’t get things done, consider Gandhi’s famous words: “I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps.” Let’s learn from a leader who peacefully changed a nation.
It’s always best to resist knee jerk reactions, stereotypes, and baseless judgements—especially about the people with whom you need to accomplish important work. The next time you're tempted to utter or even think those four simple words, find some new vocabulary.
Dr. Mike Patterson is an author, speaker, and master facilitator who helps leaders and teams communicate, collaborate, and manage conflict more effectively. He is the co-author of the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places, and he teaches in the doctoral programs at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology and California Baptist University.
© 2021 Michael L. Patterson, Ed.D.