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professional cooperation

Ten reasons why the cooperation with your colleague can become abrasive (and what you can do about this yourself)

By Rembt Sickinghe

Why is there awkwardness in cooperation?
We work together every day, but do not take sufficient time to discuss calmly what we need to get the maximum from our cooperation. How come? Because we have worked with people our entire lives and it feels very awkward to now actually discuss it. Because, what on earth are we supposed to talk about? That we work well together is logical, isn’t it?


If cooperation suffers tension, those involved become cramped. Things you normally do, like listening and asking questions, you no longer do properly. I sometimes compare this to a motorway. Where you normally listen to each other, as wide as four lanes next to each other, you lose this capacity if tension occurs. You are suddenly less skilful, as though you are suddenly driving along a country lane that is very narrow.

10 reasons for awkward cooperation

1. The sarcastic person
You provide intrinsic feedback in a meeting to a proposal by your colleague, but they respond in a very unfriendly manner to you ‘How long have you worked here?!’ (and that was not very long). Here, content and relationship are muddled up. The feedback on the proposal is experienced as a personal attack. This is good to be aware of.

What can you do:

  • Ask: what makes you respond so (sarcastically)? Or: why this attack on the player and not the ball?
  • If the other answers: that it is not meant like that or it is nothing, do not accept this at face value. Remain inquisitive and ask again: what did I do, that you responded in such a way, because I would like to understand this.
  • Do not ignore this, because people never say something without reason. Perhaps the other person has worked really hard on the proposal and feels that you do not recognise their qualities or wonders what the others present will think of him.
  • You can also consider that perhaps it was because of the way in which you gave the feedback: check with others how it came across. Communication has many tones.
  • If you want to do it properly, you make a distinction between content and relationship. But remember, both are important.

2. The tribal competition
You have to work with two colleagues from another department. Unfortunately, two blood groups: gossip, hidden agendas and they are not really listening.

What can you do:

  • As soon as you become aware that you are observing this, the advice is to discuss this in a dialogue.
  • Share with them what you are witnessing, what effect this is having on you and how it feels for you. Then ask them if they too recognise this? Providing feedback gets the dialogue going. For example: as your colleague, I would like to give you feedback about the cooperation. I notice that we are not discussing matters in all openness with each other. The effect is that we are not discussing the things we should be discussing and so we are not achieving the progress we could be. This gives me an uncomfortable feeling. Do you recognise this too?
  • It requires preparation, courage and assertiveness to do this.
  • Write out the sentences. The more compact the sentences, the clearer the message. Practice by saying the sentences out loud. Consider your tone of voice, avoid hostility or anger.
  • Good preparation helps the receivers of your message to accept it more easily and you will be better able to observe how they respond (non-verbal signals) to your feedback.

3. The pariah
You are part of a project team, but are not completely convinced of the result that you are working towards.

What can you do:

  • Bring this up for discussion.
  • Have you previously made your opinions known? What response did you receive? Did you feel that you were heard?
  • What do others think about this? Are you the only one?
  • If, in the end, you have not managed to convince the other or others, you will have motivated yourself to just get on with it or to discuss whether it is possible to relieve you of this task. If no one responds and you do not want to work on this task, you would be better off to go in search of another job.

4. The odd couple
You are completely different: you are a chatter box and the other is curt and introvert; ‘good morning’ is almost too much to ask. No chemistry. You avoid each other. People can be very different.

What can you do:

  • It is imperative that you discuss this together: what this does to you, how it affects you and makes you feel. And vice versa.
  • Indicate to each other what you would like the other to do and not to do.
  • So, you leave without the feeling that the problem has been resolved or that the other has even slightly adjusted for you. This feeling is mutual, so you too must get to work.
  • What is very normal and easy for you can be a great challenge for the other person. Do not forget to give positive feedback if the other person attempts to do it right. Because nothing is more motivating than that.
  • Deep inside, one person would like a bit of the strength that the other person has and vice versa.

5. The profit warning
You explained that you are not going to reach the sales targets and then the other person looked very uncomfortable. You felt the other person was very disappointed in you. Then the judgement was pronounced: the trust in you had been tainted. You ask why this was the case. The answer was: ‘You didn’t warn me in time that the figures might be disappointing. Now I have to tell my superiors the bad news. I don’t think this looks very professional. You should have informed me in time’.

What can you do:

  • Describe what you see, give an emotional reflex and check if this is appropriate (for example: I see from your expression that you are very concerned and I have the feeling that you are very disappointed, is that correct?).
  • Keep asking questions so that you get to the bottom of the matter.
  • Could you have foreseen this: yes, because if you had asked the other person earlier, you would have known that this person would not have been happy being alerted so late on in the day (sloppy process).

6. The magic trick
You and the other person have long since spotted the ‘bone of contention’ lying on the table. Do not delude yourself with the idea that a magic trick is going to make this disappear.

What can you do:

  • Mention the bone of contention and ask the other what he/she thinks about this problem. Simple enough? Well it is and isn’t. Yes, because you can just open the discussion. No, because it can be nerve-racking (for you both). And this is normal with bones of contention.
  • Be inquisitive about what makes this so contentious, why no one dares to tackle it and what you are going to do about it together. It is then likely that it will disappear.
  • Do not forget to discuss how you plan to deal with any bones of contention in the future.

7. The wall
But this person will just never change , a hopeless case, you can really wind yourself up about this person. I give up.

What can you do:

  • Have you already spoken to the other person? Yes, I have mentioned it. No, that isn’t the answer to my question. Speaking is not the same as mentioning.’ So, make time for a real conversation.
  • Have you already discussed this with each other but nothing has changed, then it is time for meta-communication, which is giving feedback about the manner of communication. Since our last conversation, I can see that nothing has changed, while you had promised this. The effect is that it is not getting any better. I have the feeling that you are not taking me seriously. Do you recognise this?
  • It occurs statistically that it is impossible to work with a certain person. If you find this, you have no alternative other than to make the best of it in the given circumstances. See if you can resolve your task with the other person differently. Who can work well with this person?
  • Be wary of placing a person in this category too quickly. Think about the image of the swimming certificate: if one of the two can swim, the other can be saved and then you both survive.
  • People can do the impossible, but no one has made themselves. No one will protest if you try to understand them: really listen without judging, with interest.

8. The mystic
How often do we discover that the tasks are unclear or that the message is communicated unclearly?

What can you do:

  • Take the time if someone asks you to do something. And vice versa, when you ask someone to do something. Things are often just quickly slipped in, because so much needs to be done. Above all, half a word is more than enough explanation. And we are off.
  • Check with each other if things are clear: ask the other if they will summarise what you just tried to explain, then you can check if you have been clear.
  • Take sufficient time to prepare if you have something important to say to someone. Because half messages have the risk of producing half the result.

9. The tracker
You have ensured that everything has grown and flourished and then someone else comes along who tells you that you need to do things differently. Can this person not see what you have accomplished…. What can happen here is that your ego can get in your way. You are completely on your own track. Is this understandable? Of course it is.

What can you do:

  • What helps is a modicum of self-criticism. Is it true that I have ensured that everything has grown and flourished? Why is what I did perhaps no longer the right track to follow?
  • Remain inquisitive: what are the benefits of doing it differently?
  • Have I failed? Doing this differently now does not mean that what you were doing was wrong. Ask the other person explicitly, if this is bothering you. This provides clarity, otherwise the thought will continue to gnaw at you.
  • Be open for what the other person has to say, listen. Once you understand the track the other is suggesting, it is easier to reflect on your own track and you will get more out of your cooperation.

10. The confusion
Someone says A but means B. Or someone says A and does B.

What can you do:

  • Most commonly, the person that says or does this is not aware of this.
  • Explain to this person what you have observed and ask if this is correct, before you know it you may have made a false assumption and confused yourself.
  • The other will appreciate that you have treated him/her so attentively. If you want to work well together, it is important not to just step over this.
  • It can also be the case that someone does this on purpose. Then you could ask yourself what the other person’s intention is. What makes you say A and do B? How should I read your communication? What is more important: what you say or what you do?
  • The better you understand each other, the more successful you will be in the things you do together.
If you want to make things easy for yourself, take a Heat scan with the other person. Get to work together. You are participating in this, so you can determine the result together. You and the other person acquire information on the basis of the Heat scan report. It is also the agenda you are going to discuss to get the maximum from your cooperation. All the relevant components for professional cooperation are contained here.

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