Any of you work with someone you don’t trust? When one of my clients complained about an associate this way, it got my attention. Who wants to work in conditions like that? And yet some of us do. Myself included. It may be someone we used to trust, and then something happens between us, and we can’t find a way to overcome the tension that now exists. And you still have to work together.

I have this belief that pain is inevitable; suffering, however, is optional. Great leaders find actions to move out of suffering. The first time I heard that I started laughing and thought, “Yea, right. Show me how.”

I have since become a believer. When we get stuck in the “pain” of dealing with tense relationships, we often try to avoid the person, or blame them, or treat them as if something is wrong with who they are. Sometimes we do all three. As you can imagine, that doesn’t help. It only adds to the tension. How long we stay in the suffering of it, however, is up to us. It depends on how quickly we can consciously identify what action to take and move into it.

Here’s what makes that hard. A loss of trust can be painful. It’s hard to work with someone you don’t trust without finding problems in everything they do. What I have noticed is that once we decide we can’t trust somebody, we begin looking for them to “show up” as not trustworthy anyway. No matter what. We’re expecting it to happen. And guess what? When we look for a lack of trust with the other person, we’ll find it, even when it’s not there. From our point of view, they can’t show up any other way.

So that’s how we treat them, as untrustworthy. The problem is, they probably feel the same way about us. Do you see how we can perpetuate our own suffering?

One way to stop this reactive cycle from spiraling out of control may surprise you. It starts with us looking inside ourselves for another way, for a different action. I’ll offer a 2-step practice I actually used myself last month in a situation not unlike the one my client described. It involved a colleague I’ll call Karen. The practice is called Turning Should’s into Could’s, and you might be taken aback at the shift you feel when you try this.

The first step is to list all the “should’s” you have about this person. Your list of “should’s” are really your expectations of them. Write out this list using the word “should” in each expectation you have of this person. Keep listing your expectations until you run out of steam. You’ll probably feel better, too. Getting this list out of you helps, if only to give you better insights into what’s causing the pain. That’s where the actions can come from.

Here are three of the “should’s” I used with the tense relationship I needed to address:

  1. Karen should be an ally instead of a competitive adversary.
  2. Karen should apologize for what she did with my client.
  3. Karen should trust us.

Even now as I write these, I realize how uncomfortable Karen must feel being around me if I see her this way. Our emotions are more transparent than we think.

Step #2 is to go through your list and cross out the word, “should” in each expectation. Replace it with the word, “could”. Here’s what my list looked like after I did that:

  1. Karen could be an ally instead of a competitive adversary.
  2. Karen could apologize for what she did with my client.
  3. Karen could trust us.

Notice what possibilities pop up as you hear yourself reading the new expectations. For me, it shifted the focus from making Karen wrong to something I might need to do. For instance, in saying Karen could be an ally instead of a competitive adversary, I began to wonder what would have to happen for that to occur. What would Karen need? What could I do to help make that happen? What request could Karen make of me? What request could I make of her? I found myself actually feeling differently about Karen. I saw possibilities instead of dead ends.

The same thing happened when I considered the changed expectation that “Karen could trust us”. I wondered what would need to happen for that to take place. What would she need to trust us? What would I need to do? The change in what I felt amazed me. I was no longer blaming Karen for not trusting us, but considering possibilities that moments before would never have entered the realm of possibility.

This practice enables us to move consciously through suffering and into action with a fresh perspective. What it means for me is the next time I see Karen my radar won’t go off screaming, “Danger! Danger! Here she comes”, but rather, “Oh, there’s Karen. Good. I have several things I want to talk to her about.”

Not sure? Consider this an empowering practice for you to reclaim your effectiveness as a leader. Walt Whitman captured this point beautifully when he offered, “Have you learned lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned lessons from those who brace themselves against you and dispute the passage with you?”

In fact, Karen did that for me. She became what I call a developmental angel, triggering an upset that opened up learning and growth for me. May you, too, find the upside in your developmental angel, learning insights nobody else could have opened for you.