Dealing With Grudges And Grievances
I know the old adage about letting sleeping dogs lie. But we’re talking people here, and people with grudges tend to become more difficult if you allow your silence to let them stew in their angry juices about whatever sleight or injury they are holding you accountable for.
How do you know if someone is holding a grudge against you? Some might say that you just know. But if you’re anything like me, you’d prefer not to hallucinate freely on the internal states of others. And it that’s the case, it’s helpful to know a few of the warning signs.
Not every problem with people can be resolved. Some people are more married to their grudge (it gives them a reason to live) than they are to resolving it. I’ve had a couple of relationships with friends that ended badly, and I was never able to do a thing to change the ending. People are prickly, they take offense and lock onto it, and once they’ve made up their mind about you and fit you into their pre-existing conditioning, you may need to just let it go and let them carry it. But most the time, grudges and grievances can be worked out, but first you have to get them out, air them out so you can work them out.
One possible sign of a grudge or grievance is if the person suddenly stops talking to you. Of course, they could also be busy, or just might not be that into you anymore. But still, that ought to get your attention. A stronger signal is if they start talking about you behind your back. That’s a pretty solid sign that they have something going on with you that they haven’t told you about. And if they start making strange comments about you to your face, putting you down and laughing at you, then waving it off like it’s just a joke, or if they’re making too-personal remarks that sound funny but feel hurtful, there’s at least a chance that they are harboring bad feelings about you, and trying to discharge them through ‘funny’ comments. Or, alternatively, they just get a kick out of teasing you because of your obvious reactions, in which case, see my posts about teasing and roasting, here, here and here.
Here’s the thing about grudges and grievances. Leave a grudge alone, you just might regret it later, when out of nowhere someone comes after you with a vengeance at the most inopportune time. So when is the best time to deal with a possible grudge or grievance? Right away. Don’t let wounds fester, and don’t let grievances grow. When you first suspect that someone has something going on with you, that’s the time to go bring that which is hidden to the surface, where you can actually acknowledge and deal with it.
If you ever suspect that someone is holding a grudge against you, but you’re not certain, become a scout, go on patrol, and see what you can find out. If you find evidence that someone is harboring a grudge, do what you can to clear the air. The best place to do that is privately rather than out in the open. Why? To avoid creating any embarrassing moments and memories in the minds of witnesses.
If you’re uncomfortable talking to the person alone, you may find it helpful to do this in the presence of a neutral third party, but first, you need to gain the agreement of the person you’re having the problem with.
This could be a difficult conversation, so steel yourself for it. To begin the conversation, remind the person of any past negative statements they have made that you are aware of, and ask them what they were really trying to say when they made those statements. If you can, write down what they said so you have documentation of it, including who was there, what was said, and when it was said specifically. Now you can say, “(fill in name), I’m concerned that you and I have something going on between us that could interfere with our working together.” This depersonalizes the problem, and places it between you rather than on them. Now you look at your document and cite the evidence you’ve collected. “Last Tuesday at the meeting with the rest of our team and the project manager, you said (fill in their potentially hostile comment). I don’t get it. I’m wondering, when you said that, what was going on? What were you really trying to say?”
Remember, it’s not what you say but how you say it. Best to look innocent and curious, rather than hostile yourself. Do this really well, and the person won’t realize what’s going on. With no reactive or defensive behavior on your part, they are likely to volunteer the information you ask for before they have a chance to put up their shields.
However, if the person denies having any hidden agenda, you can always try guessing. Random guesses might get a response, and funny guesses might get a response, but the best response will be to your best guess. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Mentally review the course of events as you understand them. Once you’ve come up with an idea, suggest it to them and watch for a reaction. If you think of several possibilities, rattle them off. Preface your guesses by telling them that “I don’t know what was going on for you” or “I realize that I am just guessing , but” and then fill in your guess. Watch the reaction. If they deny it, try again. Once you’ve guessed correctly, you should at least see a flinch, at which point you can ask about it, and start to fill in the details. Once you’ve popped the cork on a bottle of grievance, the rest tends to come bubbling out.
Once you are successful in bringing the grudge to the surface, it is essential that you listen carefully to everything the person has to say, all of it, without any back pressure or demand to wrap it up. You don’t have to agree, and you really shouldn’t disagree. You don’t have to take ownership over it at all, so don’t defend, explain, justify, or make excuses. Instead, backtrack, clarify, and help them to express the grievance fully, with no resistance on your part, doing your best to see events as they see them. Once you fully understand the nature of the grievance, let them know that you understand, and express appreciation for their willingness to talk to you about it.
Now, what if you find out that you were responsible in some way for it? What if you screwed up, made a mistake, insulted them, denied them their due, got in their way at an important moment, or failed to be there for them when they needed you?
If they have just cause, rather than just believing they do, own up to it. This will get back some of the respect that was lost. And if you have information that you think would help them make sense of the situation, this is the point to let them know. “May I tell you how this happened?” If they say no, simply reply “Fair enough.” This is true even with a grievance expressed in a public setting, where anyone curious to hear your side of the story will ask for it, either at the time or later on.
Something you want to say to me? Your comments are welcome and I’m listening! I’d love to hear about your experiences with grudges and grievances.
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.