Working Through Difficult Workplace Situations: Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

In almost every interview I’ve had, I’ve been asked how I deal with difficult workplace situations. Often, they’ll ask for an example of one such situation, and how I handled it.

I find these questions difficult to answer partly because my work doesn’t involve many difficult situations with other colleagues, partly because I’m bad at remembering, and partly because of how I view disagreements.

One of my majors for my undergraduate degree was cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology studies humans and how they interact and react to the world around them. As the Duke cultural anthropology page states,

It’s the nature of the human condition to live within structures of symbol, belief, and power of our own fashioning: religion, art, gender, war, ecosystems, race relations, embodiment, kinship, science, colonialism, language, nations and states, play, subsistence strategies, mass media, illness, pain, and pleasure. In a word, culture.

This may seem like a tangent, but bear with me for just a bit longer. In my classes we discussed different cultures, and we talked about how their values and circumstances related to the items listed above, shaped the way they chose to do things. We even had to find some microcultures we could study for an ethnography (a descriptive study of a culture) in our free time. The two that I ended up writing about was the hockey fan culture at my school, and the culture of the student newspaper. Both of these were clearly much smaller factions of a larger society, such as campus culture on the whole. But in studying these smaller groups, I took away something that I use for all of my disagreements with people. What I learned from anthropology is that people have reasons for doing the things they do. Most practices are not random; there is a reason someone chooses to do something that way.

So when I’m experiencing a difficult situation, I think about that. I like to step back in those situations and try to understand their point of view. Frequently when I do that, I can find a miscommunication, or I can realize that I’ve been emphasizing the wrong point, and I can correct my course to avoid a collision. Of course sometimes there still will be disagreements, but I find it much easier to remain respectful when I am able to see their point of view (even if I disagree).

Here is a hypothetical example for this situation: You and your colleague are working on a presentation you have to give at a conference in a week. You and your colleague have already met to discuss what you want to say, but they said they would handle putting the presentation together. However that was a three weeks ago, and they still haven’t given you a draft or final copy of the presentation, which makes you nervous because you would like some time to rehearse what you’re going to say, since you’re not great at public speaking. You’ve already asked them a couple of times when you might expect a copy of the presentation, and the most recent response from them was a little terse, and you were taken aback at their tone. You’re starting to get annoyed at them because they haven’t done their work, you don’t think you will be prepared enough, and they weren’t responding in the nicest manner.

There are a couple of things going on in this situation. You are annoyed at your colleague for the reasons mentioned above. It’s easy when someone responds in a way you didn’t expect to change your attitude toward them to reflect their tone. Instead of escalating the tension, you can take a step back and think about your colleague for a minute. You know they have been given a really big project which has a deadline coming up soon, and your boss has been putting a lot of pressure on them to have it done perfectly. You also know that the other colleague they used to share their workload with, left the company, and now they have to do all the work by themselves. Put in that context, it can be understandable that they might be a bit stressed and may not have had the time to focus on your presentation. You could approach them again and say that you know they have a lot of work to do with the presentation and the project, and you would be happy to help them out with either, any way you can.

When your colleague responded tersely to your inquiry on the presentation, they may have been responding to you asking them a lot about the presentation, and they feel like they’re doing the best they can. What they may not realize, and might if they stop to think about your perspective, is that public speaking makes you nervous, so you like to have lots of time to prepare before you give a presentation. If they came to this realization, they may be able to help by giving you what they’ve completed so far to help you feel a little more comfortable.

This approach is not exclusive to anthropology, and you don’t need to take an anthropology class to think about walking in someone else’s shoes before you speak.


“Cultural Anthropology.” What is Cultural Anthropology? | Duke Cultural Anthropology, Duke University, 2017,

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