In April 2015, I wrote a blog questioning, “Why Should You Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer?” With an excess of 28,000 reads of that post, it obviously identified a real need of a great many people. The post provided a rationale for the issue, not least that you can learn a lot from people you dislike, gain a different perspective and make it easier for your allies to work with you. But it only addressed strategies for working with enemies and difficult people in a cursory fashion.
Near as I can tell, there are two vocations that absolutely require a person to keep their enemies closer just to keep their job: elected politicos and Protestant church ministers. However, most business people recognize early on that they’re going to have to work with “enemies,” people they don’t especially like or trust–or pay the price in performance and sometime job loss.
So how can you keep your enemies closer?
First, confronting your enemies is usually a waste of time and a bad conversational move. They’ve got their views and in a high percentage of cases you’re not going to change their mind anyway. You may feel good by confronting them, but that won’t make the problem go away. Sure, there are occasions when confrontation is useful, but they are rare. And sometimes confronting another is a form of suicide.
Furthermore, ignoring these people is also a bad move. I was an associate minister to a great guy who ignored his enemies, hoping they’d eventually be shown wrong and fall on their faces. Instead, they worked behind his back, building support for their own ideas and commitments—and made a lot of trouble for my colleague.
Years of experience reveals that the best way to deal with your enemies is with care and compassion. Stephen Carter, the Yale law professor, says that the only way to deal with these people is with love. That’s a bit much for me, but I’ve found it imperative to move in that direction rather than succumb to the temptations of anger and disgust. That kind of bitterness makes me a worse person than them. It charges my emotions and makes it difficult for me to focus on the strategic and covenantal matters of life.
Second, greet your enemies with profound, compassionate listening—an unearned gift to that person. Typically, enemies are not supermen (or women). Actually, they’re lonely and sad, which often arises from wounded pride and a feeling of being ignored. It’s very important that they be heard. So, parroting what they say, and then paraphrasing is rarely overdone. “So, you’re saying that. . .?” And “By that you mean. . .?” If you let these people know they’ve been heard, you’ll often address the issues that are at the root of your differences.
Third, if you really listen actively, you’ll regularly find stuff of much value to yourself. And not just how to work with these folk. You’ll gain insights that you’ve missed and add to your store of knowledge. I’ve coached far too many executives who believe that their enemy has nothing of value. So, they go through the listening process merely to pacify their enemies. That’s seriously shallow, destructive hubris.
Finally, keeping your enemies closer can sometimes lead to your enemy becoming a valued colleague, if not a friend. One of the surprising, but common responses, is that your enemies can become very protective of you. On numerous occasions, even though my former “enemy” maintained his disagreement, he or she was the same person who defended me to his colleagues.
In the final analysis, Stephen Carter is spot on when he summarizes my own perspective with the announcement that these actions are “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living (and working) together.”