How do I put someone at ease? Complication: potential mutual attraction
August 3, 2016 12:53 PM   Subscribe

I have to work very closely with someone that seems to be very anxious around me. Is there anything I can do to make this person more comfortable?

I think my coworker might naturally be a shy, somewhat tightly wound person whose naturally anxious tendencies are heightened by being around me. When we're in groups, Coworker is just fine; but when we have to be alone together, Coworker becomes very nervous (fidgeting, sweating, having trouble putting words together) and it makes working together uncomfortable and difficult.

For the last few months I've tried to simply ignore it and be kind, neutral and professional, but to be honest I'm starting to dread being around Coworker and feel somehow at fault for Coworker's discomfort.

Big complication: my gut feeling is that the nervousness might be due to mutual attraction. I have to admit to feeling a quite strong physical attraction to Coworker although we've never been anything but professional. I'm fairly aware of and able to control my body language and am always careful not to say or do anything that might reveal my own attraction, but nonetheless I believe it is mutual and that we're both aware of it. I have no intention of acting on it; we are both partnered.

Is there anything I can do or say to put Coworker at ease, or should I just keep politely ignoring and hope that it goes away over time?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Other people's anxiety is not your problem. Just keep ignoring it and do your job.

I've spent enough time making my own life more difficult trying to manage other people's anxiety (because I want people to be at ease around me! I want people I talk to to feel like they're accepted!) but it's ultimately not something in my power to fix. This is something I have to remind myself of often. I can't make other people's baggage my own.
posted by phunniemee at 1:26 PM on August 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

I get anxious in one-on-ones at work, and sometimes it does mean that people obviously try to spend less time with me, which sucks. Try to just ignore it and hopefully they'll warm up with time.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:34 PM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Perhaps you break the ice in one-on-ones by sharing positive/neutral anecdotes about weekend plans with your spouse, establishing clearly that you are happily partnered and will not act on any mutual attraction.
posted by samthemander at 1:39 PM on August 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm fairly aware of and able to control my body language and am always careful not to say or do anything that might reveal my own attraction

People often think they are hiding their feelings but your coworker is well aware of your attraction to him/her. In fact that could be the source of their anxiety - trying to control *their* body language in response.

I second samthemander's advice: talk about your partner in positive terms. And I'd add to it by saying mean it.
posted by headnsouth at 1:56 PM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Big complication: my gut feeling is that the nervousness might be due to mutual attraction.

I suggest you start a journal and deal with your own feelings. Temptation grows out of discontent, not the other way around. You are trying to hide your attraction and you describe it as a "big complication." I have known men who found me charming, were absolutely not going to be unfaithful to their wife and saw no reason to hide their fondness for me because they did not find it threatening.

I was clear that had circumstances been different, we might have dated because the fondness was mutual. But circumstances weren't different, so nothing was going to happen. We were both perfectly comfortable working together.

People feel threatened when they perceive circumstances as dangerous. If you really trust this person and really feel that your own relationship is secure, two people mutually having positive feelings ("liking each other") should not be an issue.

In the mean time, yes, talk about your partner in positive terms, but do not reveal significantly more personal info to this coworker than you would to any other coworker. Talking about one's partner can become a means to reveal personal/private information about yourself and your private life and turn someone into your confidante. This can lay the groundwork for an affair. Make sure you aren't doing that.

Take pains to not discuss the mutual attraction while finding ways to signal that a) you aren't offended by their attraction b) there will be no affair and c) you will go out of your way to make sure this does not lead to drama.
posted by Michele in California at 2:09 PM on August 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

I would just keep it professional and quit speculating about whether they're attracted to you.

You are probably unconsciously telegraphing attraction or your assumption they they are attracted to you.

And it may well be an assumption-- attraction may only be a factor on your side. I remember reading a study that said men drastically overestimate women's attraction to them (obviously I don't know if that's the case here, but something to think about if so.)

Some of us are just nervous one-on-one, nervous with a certain gender, nervous period. It makes us more nervous if you notice. Try not to pay so much attention to whether they're sweating or stuttering or hot for you or that you're hot for them. Treat this person as you would any other coworker.
posted by kapers at 9:28 AM on August 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

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