Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we continue The Workplace series by sharing an exercise to help you understand how your past may affect your connections with coworkers.

Like all relationships, your bonds with coworkers may be affected by your emotional heritage – your family’s attitudes toward emotional expression, their emotional philosophy, and the enduring vulnerabilities you may retain from past injuries. People’s work relationships may also be affected by traumatic incidents that occur inside or outside the family. It’s important to be aware of your emotional heritage and how it can affect your current work life. 

Exercise: How does your past influence your connections with coworkers?

Consider the following emotions: 


Pride                      Compassion                      Anger                      Sadness                      Fear

Answer the questions below, thinking about each emotion separately. Note: This is a long exercise – unless you have a great deal of time and patience, it may be better not to attempt to complete it in one sitting! We suggest that you start with the emotion that you have the most difficulty with experiencing or responding to.

  • How does your comfort level with this emotion affect your ability to get along with coworkers?
  • When you experience this emotion at work, are you usually able to express it in a productive way?
  • Do you feel that your coworkers understand how you are feeling?
  • Do you feel guilty or self-conscious expressing this feeling?
  • Are your coworkers likely to turn toward you, away from you, or against you when you express this emotion?

Now think about how comfortable you feel when you recognize these emotions in your coworkers.

  • How does your comfort level with your coworker’s emotions affect your ability to connect with him or her?
  • Do you feel that you’re able to empathize with your coworker when he or she is feeling this way?
  • Do you feel embarrassed, frightened, or angry when your coworker expresses this feeling?
  • Are you likely to turn toward, turn away from, or turn against your coworker when he or she expresses this feeling?
  • How could you and your coworkers do better at responding to one another’s feelings in the workplace? Is this something you can discuss as a group or with an individual coworker or supervisor?

Consider the ways in which past difficulties have made you vulnerable. What are some of your enduring vulnerabilities?

  • How do your enduring vulnerabilities affect your ability to connect emotionally with your coworkers?
  • Do you feel that past injuries interfere with your ability to bid for emotional connection with coworkers? In what way?
  • Do you feel that past injuries interfere with your ability to respond to coworkers’ bids? How so?
  • Do past injuries ever get in your way of your ability to feel included at work?
  • Do past injuries interfere with your ability to express or accept appreciation at work?
  • Do you sometimes feel that you’re struggling too hard to control your coworkers because you feel vulnerable?
  • Do you sometimes feel that you’re struggling too hard to resist being controlled by coworkers because you feel vulnerable?

We hope that considering these questions will help you to gain some insight into the way in which your relationships with coworkers are affected by feelings that you have about your interactions in the workplace. Understanding the underlying causes of your emotional reactions can help you to stay in control of negative emotions and to learn ways to cope with them when they come up! This will greatly reduce misunderstandings, arguments, and hurt feelings that are damaging to a productive, professional environment.

This Friday, look forward to an exercise designed by Dr. Gottman on connecting with your coworkers, and stay tuned for our wrap up of The Workplace series next week with a deeper look at Shared Meaning at work.

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The Workplace: How Your Past Influences Your Connections with Coworkers
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.