“I just don’t like working with women,” she said to me over coffee. “They are so catty. I’d prefer to work with men, and when I look around, all of my friends are men, too.”
“I used to feel that way,” I responded. “Then I realized that the women I didn’t like were more like me than I thought they were. Somehow, rather than reject them, I learned to embrace them.”
It took me years to demonstrate my support of women – especially when a woman was unkind to me at work. It is extremely challenging to work with someone you don’t like – or worse, with someone who openly dislikes you.
Frankly, I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t want to feel angry. It’s not a pleasant feeling, and it takes energy to be angry. Over the last five years, I’ve realized that how I view other women has a big impact on how I treat them – and on whether or not I support them.
It’s all backward. I look outside, and then I judge or come to a conclusion. The irony is there is nothing to judge on the outside. It’s all just how I see things. My perception of another woman at work is not a truth – it’s just some fable my mind makes up.
Few people are bold enough to spend time working on how they see the world. Most will spend hours, days, years, even entire lifetimes trying to change what’s going on outside themselves instead of inside their own heads. Frankly, I gave that up. I cannot change anything outside myself, but I can perpetually work on how I engage and how I think about others. Its one thing to dislike what someone does, but it’s not good to dislike the person.
Yet, we all do it. We all look to and fixate on the outside. For example: trying to get the “right” body; trying to have the “perfect” marriage; trying to be the overachiever at work. On and on it goes, but we are never satisfied.
And as women, when we perceive a threat from someone – especially from another woman at work – we sometimes come to some bad conclusions:
Boy is she fat.
Wow. Nice hair.
She isn’t a good mother. Did you see what she just did with her kid?
She acts like that for men’s attention. How pathetic.
Total garbage – but it’s there in our minds.
So, how do you overcome the reflex to reject another woman?
Start by looking at your initial thoughts about her when you first come into contact with her. What you will find is that 99 percent of what your mind tells you about her isn’t even true.
Here are five ways to cultivate a mindset of openness and support for other women in the workplace:
1. Be Open to Changing Your Mind
Be open to rethinking your own thoughts. Be open to the idea that they are not the absolute truth. Often, many of us are very quick to judge other women in order to elevate ourselves. When those thoughts come up in your head, look at them. Are they actually true?
2. Be Patient
You may embrace a woman, but she may reject you. Be patient. Maybe you triggered something in her or she is slow to trust. Maybe no other woman has reached out to her and she doesn’t know how to receive your support. Be open. Don’t reject her back in retaliation. Don’t get out of the boat; keep rowing and invite her into the boat.
3. Practice by Giving Small Compliments
For the last few years, I have worked on purposely reprogramming my thinking. When I do look outward at other women, I make sure to find one good thing about each one.
For example, in an airport, I told a woman that she had a great piece of jewelry on and that it went really well with her outfit. I’ll never forget her response: Her whole face brightened. She thanked me and said she actually woke up in a horrible mood, but this small gesture made her entire day.
This small practice helps you to cultivate good thoughts. The mind will always gravitate to the negative and judgmental. Don’t take the bait.
4. Be Empathetic
Your ability to relate is the most important skill you can develop. Practicing empathy when another woman lashes out at you is the hardest thing you’ll ever do – but it’s also the biggest moment of your life.
Rather than react negatively in return, think about how you may have felt in that situation. Conjure up a time in your life when you felt angry or hurt and how you lashed out at others. Then look at her again. I bet you see her differently. Treat her with love when she is the most angry, the most ugly, and the most hateful toward you. You may find that she melts with the love you pour on her.
That being said, empathy is not pity and should not be exercised if you are being abused. Know the difference between misdirected anger and active mistreatment.
5. Publicly Support Another Woman at Work
When you see her in the office, no matter how you feel or how much jealousy may be present in your mind, support her. In meetings, support women openly and verbally when you agree with their points. Find women who need support at work and rally around them. Look for ways to embrace the younger women in your office, but don’t overstep your bounds or give advice that is really judgment in disguies. Stretch yourself. Support women whom you don’t like at work; analyze and deconstruct your feelings about them.
Sophia A. Nelson, author of The Woman Code, put it perfectly: “True sisterhood cannot be forced. It has to be developed over time. Not every woman will be your best friend, nor should she be invited to be in your inner circle, but every woman is deserving of your respect and support, if only in the form of a smile.”
A version of this article originally appeared on Plaid for Women.
Elizabeth Lions is an executive career coach. You can learn more at ElizabethLions.com.