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Invite an Adversary to Lunch

Disch, Joanne PhD, RN, FAAN

AJN The American Journal of Nursing: May 2014 - Volume 114 - Issue 5 - p 7
doi: 10.1097/

What you learn might surprise you.

Joanne Disch is professor ad honorem in the University of Minnesota School of Nursing in Minneapolis, and a member of the AJN editorial board.



Nothing provides greater pleasure than getting together with friends and coworkers who share our values, views, and love of nursing. It's heartening to hear “I know exactly what you mean!” and “Isn't that just the truth!” But sometimes exposing ourselves to people who don't share our values, or don't think like we do, or don't particularly appreciate our profession can be powerful. New insights can be gained. Tremendous growth can occur. Just as really hearing a patient's story can be the key to creating a therapeutic relationship, so too can spending time with a colleague with whom you strongly disagree. Learning that person's story may help foster a collegial relationship that becomes extraordinarily meaningful.

I had that experience several years ago, as I began a new position as chief nursing officer at a large Midwestern medical center. One afternoon I visited the office of another member of the senior leadership team to introduce myself. As I waited for him to arrive, I noticed that his computer had a screen saver showing the word “nurse” with a slash through it. When I asked him about this, he said it was just a joke. Over time, though, it became clear that he seemed to have a profound reaction to nurses. For example, he regularly failed to show up for scheduled meetings with me and other nursing staff. I was puzzled and, as he continued to act dismissively toward me, I became intrigued. He hardly knew me. What was behind this behavior?

So I launched a campaign to learn his story. I'd like to say that it took one lunch conversation; actually it took almost a year of great effort. I continued to schedule periodic meetings with him to discuss issues of mutual concern and, if he didn't show, I followed up. Although the operating room nurses reported to him, the majority of the nursing staff reported to me; so, when memos to the nursing staff were needed, I invited him to cocreate and cosign them with me. I continued to speak respectfully of him in meetings with my staff, even when members of his staff told me he wasn't doing the same. Some members of the nursing leadership team told me to write him off: “He's never going to change!” But finding a way to connect had become a challenge. Periodically, I caught a glimmer of something—a shared sense of humor, a similar viewpoint—that gave me hope. The turning point came during a meeting with community leaders. I introduced myself as a member of the senior administrative team, rather than as the director of nursing, thus emphasizing the commonality in our roles and responsibilities. I then used this opening to learn more about him and his background, and he began to share his story. In time I came to understand the life experiences he'd had, the situations in which nurses had indeed been disrespectful, and his interpretation of my behavior. Eventually he became my closest colleague.

What did I learn? First, everyone has a story. Second, external behavior doesn't always match internal thoughts. People are often unaware of how they project their feelings. Third, taking the time to understand another person is almost always worth the effort. It can provide insight into one's own behavior—and this was the most powerful lesson for me. Now when someone evokes a strong negative reaction, I ask myself several questions: What is it about this person that irritates me? What does this say about me? What might I have done to contribute to the situation? (In this case, I had at first inadvertently conveyed that I considered myself a nurse first and foremost, and not a member of senior leadership; not true, but I could see how that impression was given.) And always, What can I learn from this situation? I also remind myself that while I don't have to agree with other points of view, it's important that I understand them. And while my feelings toward the person may not change, I might understand her or him better—and myself.

As we celebrate Nurses Week, I suggest we each take the time to

  • thank a colleague for help with a challenging task.
  • acknowledge a colleague's skill in a difficult patient situation.
  • praise a novice nurse for something done well.
  • send a note to a supervisor about something handled well.

And perhaps most important, invite a colleague you disagree with to lunch—or at least to coffee.

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