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Aug 03
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How Not to Tell a Colleague to **** Off

photo by Charles Blackhall

by Sarah Maynard, from The Under 35 Project

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 (god help me), what does it really cost to be polite?! This particular colleague was a very special breed of bad manners (to put it politely), chaos and pure bully.

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 ebbing 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, these were some of the things I was faced with:

– a colleague who blanked me when I said good morning and goodbye

– a colleague who actively disagreed with everything I said (professionally or otherwise)

– despite being at a similar level to 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 female powers of destructive competition would meander their way through the department on a daily basis. Give me strength.

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 and 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 a daily practice of 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 ok to realize that I was suffering too.

After some weeks I was finally able to tolerate a short space of time sending her metta and I had a few ‘light bulb’ moments. I realized that 1.) She was clearly suffering herself (no one at peace with themselves could display such behaviour), 2.) I wasn’t the only person around her to be suffering (and there were most likely people who were less able to cope with this than me), 3.) there must (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 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?’ And 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 dissipated. 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.

Sarah Maynard

This stood out for me on two particular occasions. The first was her birthday when her card was doing the rounds to sign. 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. Secondly, came the day when I held the door open for her (manners you see). 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 classic 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 blind rage. 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 her, well 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.

To read more stories, visit The Under 35 Project.

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8 responses to “ How Not to Tell a Colleague to **** Off ”
  1. WOW!!!!!! — what a great opportunity for practice and you handled it so well. Yes Harold, practice does

  2. Adrienne Papermaster
    Aug 9, 2012

    What a great story! I love that you were able to come to a place of laughing about this, and also that you had the insight that someone out there must actually find her “utterly agreeable”. Thanks for practicing and sharing!

  3. Sarah this is such a great story. Thanks so much for sharing it. Practicing warriorship through communication is much more challenging than most of us realize, until we sit down and really put lovingkindness into practice during tough moments with co-workers. You’re an inspiring example of how to lean into this.

  4. Thank you Sarah!

  5. Brian McCorkle
    Aug 6, 2012

    Wonderrful post. As has been said by Shantideva, Atisha, and other great teachers, we should be grateful to those people who allow us to practice the paramita of patience, for without them we could not make any true progress along the path. If only I could remember that more often! Thanks for this well-written reminder.

  6. Catherine Saunders
    Aug 5, 2012

    Thank you for an informative very helpful article to those of us new to the Buddhist practice. I realize I don’t have to think perfectly all the time and that we are all human. Knowing someone else is facing similar challenges, and your offer of characteristically wonderful ways to act in similar situations, is helping me understand I am worthy of the practice. Thank you so much from a new follower, who is in need of this knowledge and leadership.

  7. Beautiful and inspiring. This is a difficult thing (and sometimes I think *I* am the difficult person!) It reminds me of a story Pema Chodron tells:

    **Gurdjieff was a 19th century teacher. Students came to live with him on his estate near Paris. There was one man in the community nobody could stand because he was a really prickly person. He complained constantly and any little thing might cause him to explode. People just wished that he would go away.

    Gurdjieff liked to make people do things that were completely meaningless – of course, the purpose was to make people awaken to whatever was happening in the moment. It wasn’t the meaningless tasks that were important, it was his students’ inner experience of the meaningless tasks that mattered.

    One day, one of the tasks was just too much for the person that everybody disliked, and he blew up, stormed off, and drove away, swearing never to return. The rest of the community was delighted. But when they told Gurdjieff what happened, he said “Oh, no!” and went after him.

    Three days later they both came back. That night, when he was serving Gurdjieff his supper, his attendant asked, “Sir, why did you bring him back?” and Gurdjieff answered in a very low voice, “This is just between you and me; you must tell no-one. I pay him to stay here.”**

    The difficult people are our teachers – how easily I forget that, and how beautifully you remembered :)

  8. How cool is this! What a great post!

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