Beyond Practice Management: Putting up with Sally

2009 08 19 10 27 14 220 Don Deems 70

Sally. Just her name evokes gut-wrenching angst.

You know it shouldn't be this way, yet it is. It's been gnawing at you increasingly over the past year. After all, she's worked with you for nearly a decade, and you've learned to put up with her little -- sometimes big -- idiosyncrasies.

But lately you've grown tired of the things you had been able to put up with all these years, and now these things are really bugging you. You've caught yourself getting impatient with her at times, and it's even gotten to the point where you're weighing the pros and cons of letting her go. Yet you just can't seem to "cut the cord."

If you have an At-Will Employment Agreement with Sally, you have the right to terminate her even without cause. If you don't have that arrangement, there are other courses of action you can take. However, if that were what you wanted to do, you would have already done it, right? Perhaps there's a different approach you should take.

How did this situation with Sally develop? What happened to this person you hired and worked so well with for many years? Assuming that you'd rather retain this person, how might you go about changing the relationship?

Rethinking tolerations

I'd like to step back and take a look at the situation with you from a different viewpoint -- something that's hard for any of us to do when we're embroiled in the day-to-day interactions of people we work with or are in a relationship with.

What's happening is something actually very common in our culture. We've been taught not to rock the boat, to put up with things, to be grateful for what we have, and a whole long list of other life-draining "skills." These "skills" fall under the category of tolerations, those things that we put up with, that rob us of our energy and creativity, and ultimately diminish our personal performance.

But consider this: What we tolerate holds us back from enjoying the freedom and peace that comes from not tolerating.

Essentially, you've been tolerating what Sally has been doing, and you've likely just put up with it because -- well, you know why: getting rid of her and hiring someone else is a pain. It's costly and disruptive. So you tolerate.

Reevaluate the situation

How can you work out of this dysfunctional relationship, either by turning it around or realizing it is time to move along without Sally?

Make a list of all the things about Sally, her work, and your relationship with her that have been eating at you. Be honest and write down every little detail. This is not the time to hold back!

  1. Sleep on it and look at your list the next day. Is it complete? If not, make it so.
  2. Ask Sally for a time you can sit down with her and talk. Let her pick the time. Tell her you have some things you'd like to visit with her about that have been on your mind.
  3. When it's time to meet, pick a neutral place to talk. Be calm and centered.
  4. Start your conversation with a question, such as "Sally, how do you feel things have been going between us and with our work together?" Or, "Sally, I'm curious how you feel things are going for you as an employee/team member over the past several months." Listen. Chances are there are many things going on with Sally in her personal life, or frustrations at work, or with that new dental hygienist, or whatever. People don't do things to other people just to irritate them.
  5. Reflect back to Sally what you just heard her say, and ask her to talk more about those things. Again, listen intently.
  6. Reflect again. (I know you're just dying to tell her all the things that have been bugging you about her, but wait. Patience, friend!)
  7. Once you are certain you understand thoroughly what Sally has said and you feel that she has been complete, ask her if you could provide some feedback and insights. Asking her is a critical step. If she says "yes" and everything else about her is telling you "no," suggest that you talk again soon, that sometimes getting these things out in the open is a lot to think about, and it might be better to talk again soon. This will give her time to sleep on what she's said and to do her own reflection.
  8. Now, I know you're still thinking, "What about that list you had me make?" Again, patience.
  9. A new time to visit has been chosen, and here you are again. Have you noticed any changes in Sally's behavior? Has she been more aware of her actions? Similarly, what have you noticed about your list of tolerations about Sally? Start by asking Sally if she has had any thoughts about what you talked about last time. Guess what? Listen again. Sally may (or may not) have had some time to reflect on what was discussed, and she may have gained an awareness she didn't have before about her actions and behavior. Can you scratch a few things off your list of tolerations?
  10. Ask Sally if you can now share some things about your relationship and how you work together that have been on your mind. This is the time you get to share what you've been tolerating in the relationship.

    A safe way to go about this is to say the following: "Sally, there are a few things you've touched on -- and a few things you didn't touch on (if that's true) -- that I would like to discuss with you. Can I go over these?" Asking for her permission -- even if you don't want to -- is critical. She will say yes, so you can now proceed.

    "Sally, when you (name the specific action you've been tolerating), it makes me feel (tell her how that action makes you feel), and what I'd like for you to do in the future is (make a specific request). Would you be willing to do that?" Get her agreement. Using this language is non-confrontational yet powerful. Do this for each point on your list until you reach a point where you might need to stop. If there are more issues to discuss, plan to get together and talk again the following month. Allow time for these requests to be made, her awareness to sink in, and her behaviors and actions to have time for change.

By taking this thoughtful, deliberate approach with Sally -- or with anyone in your life -- you will reduce your tolerations with others and experience a newfound sense of energy, creativity, and productivity. You'll be respected in a new way, one that will gain the admiration of those who work with you and interact with you.

Dr. Deems is a professional personal and business coach and a practicing dentist. For the seventh year in a row, he was named to Dentistry Today'sTop Leaders list and is the author of several books, the most recent, The Dentist's Coach: Build a Vibrant Practice and the Life You Want. He can be reached at

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