March 6, 2003
Conflict Resolution


JoAnne and I had our first fight this week.

Until now, my nice lady boss and I have enjoyed an amazingly smooth and rancor-free relationship: highly unusual for two middle-aged alpha females thrown into relentless proximity, day after day. There is no mudslinging with JoAnne. No back-biting. No bitchy remarks or cat fights in the Ladies Room or subtle competition over the attention of the Testosterone Units in the office. As a matter of fact, I was starting to believe that JoAnne and I were the gold standard by which such relationships should be measured: the perfect pairing of employer and employee, mentor and apprentice, partner and partner. The Cagney & Lacey of the Dirt Company, as it were. At least, our relationship felt that way until the staff meeting on Monday -- where some things were said, and some things were not said that should have been said, and some dewicate widdle feewings were hurt -- and the next thing I knew I was sitting at the front desk furiously fighting back tears, rewriting my résumé in my head, wondering if they were still hiring at In & Out Burger.

Meanwhile JoAnne was quietly slipping into her office and closing the door.

In a lot of ways, it was like fighting with my husband: brief, absurd, overblown, ridiculously one-sided. Usually when David and I "fight," only one of us is ever actually aware of the fact that we are fighting. (The other one of us is left standing in the middle of the kitchen, wondering what on earth he did to get his wife so twisted up in knots again.) My husband and my boss are a lot alike, temperamentally: they're both calm, rational, reasonable human beings ... slow to anger, quick to make amends, always on the look-out for the most effective form of conflict resolution. With David, the "conflict" is usually resolved in one of three ways: 1.) He apologizes profusely for whatever it was that he did or didn't do, and then I get my feet rubbed, 2.) I apologize profusely for being a big stoopid emotional baby, and then I get my feet rubbed, or 3.) I get my feet rubbed.

Obviously a different form of conflict resolution is required with my nice lady boss.

After a day or two of muted noncommunication and eye contact avoidance, JoAnne finally approached me late in the afternoon yesterday. She stood in front of my desk, fiddling nervously with her pen. "A couple of people have mentioned that you seem ... uhhm ... grumpier than usual," she said. "I guess you were pretty upset about the office move falling through, huh?"

I stopped alphabetizing timesheets in mid-shuffle and looked up at her. "I was devastated," I said to her simply. 

If anyone understands how important the upcoming office move was to me, it should be JoAnne. She knows that the only reason I took this job in the first place, over strong reservations about the crappy location and the scary surroundings, was because I was promised that the office would be moving within six months. That was a year and a half ago. She knows how difficult the commute is for us, every morning and every evening, and what a logistical hardship for our household. She knows how unsafe I feel in this neighborhood: how even a ten-minute walk to the BART Station is fraught with peril and menace. (It's a fear that everyone in the Dirt Company office shares.) Most importantly, she knows that David continues to postpone any sort of career move -- basically, he is staying put at a job that he hates, a job where he is criminally overworked and underpaid, a job that chews him up and spits him out, day after exhausting dispiriting day -- until we are both sure that I am working someplace safe and familiar and accessible ... preferably someplace I can commute to on my own, without having to rely on David all the time (and without having to wonder whether I should be carrying my Benchmade in the bottom of my purse). It was the thought of finally moving our office out of the remote, crime-ravaged Coliseum area and into nice 'safe' downtown Oakland, in another couple of months, that was keeping both David and I sane.

But hearing JoAnne announce that the move had fallen through, at the staff meeting on Monday, wasn't what upset me the most.

"If our positions were reversed," I said to her quietly -- meaning, if *I* were the boss and *she* the loyal adoring Administrative Ass -- "I would have met with you privately, before the meeting, and let you know that the office move deal fell through before I announced it to everybody else." The way she did it, I said, left me feeling completely blindsided.

"It didn't give me any time to pull myself together," I said. Everybody in the meeting saw me leave the conference room in tears.

She blinked a couple of times. The look of surprise on her face was 100% legitimate. "I'm sorry," she said. "I guess I didn't think about that." This, again, is where JoAnne and David are similar: when they say 'I'm sorry,' you know they mean it. It is one of the things I love most about my husband AND my nice lady boss.

"That's OK," I said. "I'm over it already." 

And that was pretty much the end of that. JoAnne went back to her office to call the real estate agent again, and I went back to alphabetizing timesheets, and the order of The Dirt Company universe was more or less restored to normal for the time being.

I doubt that I'm going to get my feet rubbed, though.



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