From “En Garde” to Guard Down. No Epees Required! | Penetrating Arm’s Length Relationships

Have you ever watched modern fencing? It’s a fascinating Olympic sport of controlled swordplay—the “act of defending.”  Fencing garb is pretty intimidating: a tough nylon or Kevlar jacket, plastron (under arm protection), knickers, a chest protector (just for women!), gloves, and a mask—all puncture resistant. Fencing is serious business.

So how about the “fencers” you work with? The people always in the act of defending themselves. The ones doing everything they can to avoid punctures to their brand, persona, egos, and position security.

They work hard to stay at arm’s length from us. That’s not a problem until we need them to get our work done.  

Diffusing defenses is our best offense.  

Accommodating “off putting” behavior by co-workers and bosses just enables them. When colleagues and bosses want to keep us at a distance they will:

  • Become inaccessible
  • Always be in a rush
  • Be unapproachable, dismissive, negative, and critical
  • Give off negative body language: scowls, crossed arms, stares
  • Reject our work 

We generally assume that these behaviors are signs of arrogance, superiority, power plays, or egotism. We often take it personally, believing it’s an insult to our capabilities, value, or style.

We’ll never find out the truth until we penetrate the barriers they put up.  

Understand your opponent before you strike your position! 

People will keep us at arm’s length for a lot of reasons. It may be because we:

  • Are unknown to them, untested, and unproven
  • Haven’t demonstrated our trustworthiness
  • Appear to lack savvy, know-how, or good judgment
  • Act with too much deference, uncertainty, or cockiness
  • Have a prior affiliation within or outside the company that creates unease
  • Present a disconcerting work style, way of speaking, or appearance 

We need to figure out what’s getting in the way of the relationship. Start by:

  • noticing what triggers their defenses
  • getting insights from others who have experienced similar reactions
  • talking to colleagues who have gained the kind of relationship you want 

You don’t need pointed weapons to pierce their defenses. Try approaches like these instead:

1. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Be your best authentic self with them. No one let’s his/her guard down when we puff ourselves up, oversell our capabilities, overplay our eagerness, and make exaggerated promises. 

2. Find a way to break the ice through laughter. Share a funny moment that involved you. This is not about telling jokes: It’s about helping them to laugh with you by being a wee bit self-deprecating.

3. Share interesting information. Ask a penetrating question. Make an observation and ask for his/her insight. Help him/her talk to you about work-related subjects that matter to them.

4. Deliver good work and make an appointment to get their feedback. Generate dialogue, seek an honest critique, and respond with appreciation.

5. If all this fails, confront. Give forth a resounding “en garde! (get ready!)”

Here’s what I did when I was at my wits ends.

  • I told one boss to stop scowling at me every time I suggested an idea. (That made him laugh and ended his use of his “look” with me.)
  • I declared to several union stewards that open dialogue was the only way we would get things done. (That opened communication channels and kept them open.)
  • I used “impact on the bottom line” questions to gain support by knowledge experts for one of my projects. (That converted them to collaborators.)  

Every touch scores a point.  

Too often we allow people to keep us at bay. Accepting with their barriers inhibits our growth, stalls our productivity, and chokes our courage.  

Building good relationships is an art. Being business fit means knowing how to get from arm’s length to engagement. No need for swords and Kevlar. Just some good old-fashioned conversation will do!

What’s been your experience with a boss or colleague who wanted to keep you at arm’s length? How did you break through? Your tips will be very helpful. Thanks.