How do you deal with negative colleagues?

Q: 
Hi Weston, 

First of all, I would like to thank you for everything I learned when I took a lesson with you and auditioned at XXXXXX a few years ago. I am still learning from the experience. I felt like my audition was a lesson! Also, thank you for contributing to online trombone nerdyness. 

I have a question regarding negative colleagues. 

I play in a section with three other trombone players. One is always leaning over to me and saying things like "I (expletive) hate this music" or "I can't (expletive) follow his 7/8 pattern" trying to get me to laugh or just acknowledge him in some way. Basically, concerning himself with variables which he cannot control. 

This frustrates me because I find that my mind will end up in a bad place which makes me sound worse (missing entrances, stupid stuff). When he is not in the section, everything is great because we all want to put in the effort to play our best no matter what. This is what makes creating music with others so much fun, consciously creating something beautiful with other people. It seems as if this other person doesn't really want to be there and isn't really making an effort to take control of his life. 

I really want to say something along the lines of, "Get your act together or quit!" I asked my friend what to do and he said, "Just respond with love. Everyone is on their own journey.” I agree with him. I think that his negative ways will eventually self-destruct, and he will have to start making bigger decisions for himself. Problem is, I see this happening years from now, long after any upcoming concerts. 

My question is: What should I do when someone is attempting to get me to acknowledge their negativity? Should I smile and potentially reinforce their behavior? Should I take the responsibility to push people around me? I find it better just to let things go and not burn any bridges. 

What are some tips for putting on the blinders when you have to play with someone who's energy is counter-intuitive to the whole? 

Thanks, 
XXXXXXX 

A: 
Thanks for writing in. I think your question is a really good one, and it's one that isn't addressed very often. We are often times so concerned with technique and musicianship that we forget to give thought to handling daily working conditions. Understanding how to deal with your colleagues and manage your expectations for them and yourself are important parts of maintaining a healthy mindset in your working environment. There are a few basic things I would think about here: 

1. Worry about the things you can control. 

Only you can control how you view your working environment and what affect it will have on your psyche. Others can only bring you down as much as you allow them to do so. Sometimes you have to work with a colleague who has a bad attitude. Sometimes you have to work with one that doesn't play so well. Sometimes you work with one who plays well but is having a bad day. Sometimes you have to work with somebody who just generally acts unprofessionally. Sometimes you have to work with all these types of people at the same time!! These are things you can't control. What you can control is doing the best job that YOU can do. You can play well. You can be respectful of your colleagues. You can maintain a positive attitude and self-esteem. You own your attitude. As one of my favorite comedians, Katt Williams, says, and I paraphrase.... "I hate when a person says that someone took their self-esteem. Nobody can take your self-esteem. That's why it's called SELF-esteem!" His version is far more crass, but the point is an effective one. 

2. Don't reinforce behavior that makes you uncomfortable. 

People who act like the person you mention are often just looking for attention. Maybe they are in a bad mood and their attitude is, "Hey, if I'm in a bad mood, I'm going to see to it that you're in a bad mood by the end of the day too!" Learn to have some compassion for these people, but also be smart about learning how to manipulate this situation. As they say, hurt people hurt people. Give that some consideration. At the same time, realize that it generally takes two to tango. Usually, someone won't keep yelling at you if you consistently respond in a whispering voice. Likewise, if someone is egging you on about how much they hate the conductor or can't follow the pattern, respond softly, concisely, or not at all. Show by example that your focus is on doing a good job and not being distracted. People eventually tire of talking to themselves. If they don't, they need professional help that you aren't qualified to provide.  

3. Whether you are in a position to affect change varies depending on the situation. 

Have a feel for the situation. Are you good friends with this person? Can you talk to them in a reasonable way without it turning into a catastrophe? Are you the leader of the section? Are you more experienced or more respected by your peers than the person you have a problem with? If so, or if not, why? Is this a long-term situation or something that will be over with in a few weeks or months? If you complain to the authority (Music Director or Orchestra Manager), does your gut tell you that it will make a difference? When people find out about this complaint, how will it reflect upon you? These are all thoughts you should consider before taking action beyond leading by example and being collegial. 

4. Come to terms with the fact that no situation is going to be perfect. 

At every level that you progress to in music, you will find that the situation is imperfect. Whether it's your high school musical, the university orchestra, a big summer music festival, or the world's greatest professional orchestra, you are going to find personalities and playing styles that don't gel perfectly with your own. There are at least two reasons for this: #1. Some of those same people you couldn't stand on your childhood playground have somehow made their way through the playing ranks just like you have. #2. Your standards and ideals evolve with time. Attitudes and behaviors that you were comfortable with ten years ago are no longer acceptable to you. 

5. Use school as an opportunity to learn about all things, not just playing. 

It sounds like you're currently in college somewhere. Take advantage of the opportunity to try different approaches and see what works in an environment that isn't permanent. One day in the next few years, you or this classmate will graduate, or maybe the person next to you will get kicked out of the ensemble. Be thankful that it's not permanent. I had a similar experience when I was in college, and one of my mentors told me, "Weston, learn to deal with it. You'll figure it out. At least you know that school will only be a few years. I, on the other hand, have to deal with these types of problems till somebody retires or dies, or maybe until I die!" :-) 

I hope this advice helps. Good luck!

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