Nancy confided to me of a difficult relationship at work. She said she had been friendly to “Bill” when he first arrived, but his sour expressions angered her. He never acknowledged her presence and Nancy had had enough. She was now offering Bill an angry expression in return. She would show him.

“I’m not willing to be nice to him anymore,” she said. “He’ll just be a jerk and I don’t want to put myself out for that.”

Yet, at the same time, Nancy hated carrying a grudge and a severe look. She was usually a very happy person.

Emotional Intelligence doesn’t expect us to be saintly and there are probably times when we need to protect ourselves from another’s aggression or moods. But Nancy felt stuck in a distressing pattern. We gently began to examine her thoughts about Bill.

“I’m not sure why he hates me so much—“

“He hates you?”
“Well, not hate. He couldn’t hate me, he doesn’t even know me. But he clearly doesn’t like me. He’s friendly to other people.”
“People in his own department. I’m in another department.”
“Could there be another reason why he isn’t friendly to you?”

Nancy thought for a moment. “He could be shy.”
“That might explain why he’s friendly with people in his own department.”
“I guess. I’m not sure. I only know that he’s very unfriendly to me and I hate it.”
“You take it personally.”
“So it could be that he doesn’t like you personally. Or it could be that he’s shy. Any other reason he might not be friendly to you?”

Nancy couldn’t think of anything.

“Maybe he thinks you don’t like him?”
“I tried to be nice to him. I introduced myself. But he’s been nothing but rude to me.”

Nancy’s nonverbals made her feelings clear. “You don’t like him….”
“No. I don’t.”
“Maybe he’s picked that up?”

We let the subject go and talked about other matters, then gradually drifted back to Bill and the subject of “emotional contagion.” I told Nancy about The Tipping Point, a wonderful book offering stories that illustrated emotional contagion—the way our emotions can “infect’ others. Some of us are more sensitive and pick up others’ moods rapidly. Maybe Bill and Nancy were feeding off each other’s negative energy. Nancy listened to some sections of the book. It made sense to her. Looking lighter, Nancy decided to cut Bill some slack—maybe he was doing the best he could under the circumstances. She didn’t want to help spread destructive emotions at work. She wanted to make her workplace, and the world in general, more positive. She would start with her own emotional messages.

I saw a shift in Nancy as we talked. She was no longer stuck on wanting “justice,” or even doing the “nice” action. She was able to move beyond her struggles with Bill when she saw a bigger picture: her small but important contribution to the world.

What idea has worked for you? How did a simple phrase, word, or concept help you shift into a new way of thinking?