Sandpaper Skills: Smooth Out Your Rough Professional Relationships with Grit
Sandpaper Skills: Smooth Out Your Rough Professional Relationships with Grit

Sandpaper Skills: Smooth Out Your Rough Professional Relationships with Grit

07/22/2022 by Meghan Maloney
Put your sandpaper skills to work when communication soft skills seem like they won't cut it alone.

Relationship skills are essential to good business. Friendly rapport builds trust and encourages collaboration. Clear communication allows for productive discussions.  These and other “soft skills” comprise the art of pleasant, well-structured interactions — and they’re all incredibly useful, both in the professional world and beyond. 

I first entered the workforce on the front lines of a customer service call center, working directly with consumers and providers of health care services. There’s a lot of discussion in professional environments about utilizing soft skills, but managing one’s tone of voice and language choices can’t soothe every personality that calls you up to complain about delivery timeframes. The nice thing about working in healthcare, however, is that there’s plenty to learn from your teammates about sensitive personalities and situations. Many of the tools I discuss here are from books, podcasts or websites that teach how to keep yourself centered, even when the circumstances or personalities surrounding you start to get chaotic. 

I also want to take a quick moment to call out that I am truly blessed to work for an organization like Arkus, where conflicts like the ones I describe below occur quite rarely as a result of excellent forethought and collaborative project management on our internal team.

Even still — there are always some tough situations that can crop up, no matter who you are or where you work — so being ready with the skills to handle them can help you stay cool under unique circumstances. That said, let’s dig right in on this subject!

How Can Sandpaper Skills Make A Difference Where Soft Skills Aren't Enough?

Working with teams and business partners can be unpredictable because you’re communicating with real people. Everyone arrives to a conversation with their own biases, moods, and preoccupations tagging along. The simple combination of a nasty headache and one misunderstood phrase is sometimes all that’s necessary to turn a zoom call sour. Soft skills are great for de-escalating these interactions when they arise.

But what about when the issues aren't so simple as one morning of burnt toast with a side of traffic jam? 

Discussions with certain people — those who come across as rude, passive-aggressive, or instigators — present a deeper challenge that typical soft skills can’t always solve. 

Have you ever felt pressured into agreeing with someone, just to get them to stop badgering you with questions about why you can’t do what they want?

Have you ever felt like someone you were speaking with was spoiling for a fight — even intentionally trying to get you upset?

Have you ever ended your day worried, irritated, or mentally drained over a difficult professional relationship?

Sometimes it seems to us that people should “just know” that their behavior is annoying or intrusive. Unfortunately, social and emotional cues don’t always land the way we’d like them to, and the hints we may drop with our body language, facial expressions, or vocal tone just don’t seem to register. 

Worse still, the ambiguity of these situations can leave us confused about how to address them, and frustrated in our attempts to describe the concern and ask for help. 

We might get caught up in the solutionless problem of analyzing why some people act the way they do.

Perhaps we start wondering if we’re overreacting — or if the issue even exists at all.

But by far the worst trick we play on ourselves is framing the problem as “how can I make this other person do/see/understand what I need?”

All this just leaves us feeling overwhelmed, confused, and powerless. The blockages feel too big and too confusing to solve. Thankfully, a solution does exist — and it starts with reframing your thinking, and realizing where your own abilities lie.

The bad news is: regardless of the reasoning behind it, you can’t control other people’s behavior.

The good news? You don’t need to.

A few additions to your communication toolbelt can equip you to handle these tough situations while keeping your project successful and your sanity intact. 

When soft skills are not enough, sandpaper skills get the job done.

Using Coarse Grit: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

The first step in solving tricky interactions is to get clear on your rules. Whether it’s to do with your time, your energy, or just your attention — you need to know what you will and won’t allow in any situation. If you’re not clear on your boundaries, no one else will be either! 

Boundaries are the foundation and frame of our internal emotional health.  Failing to establish boundaries leaves the door wide open for even simple conflicts to barge into your day and make a huge mess.

The poet Robert Frost once remarked: Good fences make good neighbors. What I believe he meant by this is: we all feel comfortable when our boundaries are fully established and well-maintained. Make your boundaries known, and most people will keep clear. Then, decide what to do if someone climbs over anyway.

Here’s a fictional example of a problem that might be resolved through this method:

Part of my routine every morning involves meeting up with a client team member to confirm the next steps in an ongoing project. But he just can’t start the work until he’s gone over in fine detail how completely terrible his day has been so far: traffic, issues getting his kids to school, the café ran out of his favorite coffee drink — I hear at least ten minutes of this every day. I find this really exhausting and it takes time away from my work day to have to sit and listen to him, but I don’t know how to get him to stop.

First, remember that this isn’t about getting anyone else to do anything. You can’t control their behavior. But you can control your response.

In this case, you know that you don’t want to listen to this person vent anymore. You know that listening to his venting is not a part of your job description. So your boundary would be: I will not listen to this anymore. 

Once you’ve clarified a boundary, you next determine how you’ll respond if it is crossed. Remember, boundaries are not a way to punish or control someone else: they are rules you set about your personal space, time, and energy. They are also the permission you give yourself to leave a situation where these rules are not being respected.

Back to the example: when this person begins his daily list of complaints, you might say:

“I have other work to do, so let’s get this task started.” 

If he were to ignore you or re-start his monologue at any point, you can give yourself permission to exit the conversation. You might say something like:

 “I’m not willing to have this conversation with you, can you please call/email me when you’re ready to start reviewing the items on our agenda?”  Then, and this is the important part, end the interaction. Hang up, or walk away.

Even though this is the first and most basic method of managing difficult relationships, many of us are not used to making plain statements, or leaving a situation when our needs are ignored. The straightforward language feels a little bit rude, because soft skills and social graces often rely on heavily cushioned or indirect language. This gentle framing allows space for the other person to avoid embarrassment. 

When the usual approach doesn’t work, it’s easy to absorb the embarrassment that should actually belong to the offending person: we imagine we’re overreacting or needlessly stirring up drama. Remind yourself that having to set explicit boundaries is not “making things weird”— the situation was already weird to begin with. You don’t have to pick up discomfort just because the other person put some down in front of you.

Even though the reasons for others’ behavior are not relevant, I want to call out that this type of situation is typically where you’ll encounter people who have genuine difficulties reading or understanding social cues. Thankfully, those people will almost always appreciate your plain statements quite a lot, and put them to use when interacting with you. 

Here’s another sample situation that might require your sandpaper skills:

I’m collaborating on a project with someone who’s really starting to irritate me. She constantly “corrects” me on things I have more experience in than she does, and picks apart my statements looking for what she believes are mistakes on my part. Sometimes this happens over an email thread involving multiple other people, and I get embarrassed even though I don’t really have any reason to.  I think she might actually be trying to help, but it’s starting to really drive me up the wall.

Once again, making plain statements and establishing boundaries should be your first approach.  If you’re being corrected, don’t be afraid to set the record straight, but say it only once. This keeps the conversation from getting sidetracked into a needless back-and-forth. Ultimately, there will be one decision maker on the task at hand, and if it’s your call, the other person’s opinion isn’t relevant; if it’s theirs, you’ve raised your concern and don’t need to belabor the point. 

As a somewhat off-the-wall example, if you get “corrected” with a statement like:

 “Beech trees don’t flower, so we don’t need to worry about that,” respond with:

 “Actually, that is not the case. Beech trees are angiosperms and all angiosperms have flowers. This is still a point we need to consider. Here are some references that identify these elements….” 

Additionally, don’t be afraid to name the behavior you don’t like to the other person, either. Speak with them privately, be specific about what you don’t like, what issues you think it causes, and what an alternative might be. This might look like:  

I appreciate your hard work on this project. When you [correct me/mark up my emails with edits/append my statements] it [causes confusion/delays the project/sidetracks important discussions]. Next time, can we [meet beforehand to make sure we’re on the same page/take the conversation offline/agree who will lead the discussion before the call begins]?”

Lastly, don’t get pulled into an argument. Keep your tone open and inquisitive, not accusatory. Invite the person to talk later if you’re prepared to hear them out, and think they’ll make a good faith effort to hear your point of view. Otherwise, let it drop. If the person repeatedly points out “mistakes” which you know are not mistakes, you can reply with “Your feedback is noted” or more casually “Thanks, I’ll consider this” (you can consider it for .003 seconds and decide it’s nonsense, of course!)

Our next post in this series will cover an even trickier problem, and we hope you’ll join us in finding the solution. Remember that these examples are built on concerns in the professional sphere, but expanding your communication skills will empower you in interactions of all kinds: family, friends, or just strangers on the street. 

Have you experienced situations like this? What are the skills you use to manage conflicts of this type? I’d love to hear your thoughts — contact me on Twitter @MeghanMaloneySF or LinkedIn. Check in soon to learn the next level of grit, and continue to master your sandpaper skills! Subscribe to the Arkus blog newsletter through the form in the upper right corner of this page.