Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


When You Sense Someone’s Upset With You, Try This

Personal Perspective: Lessons from Ted Lasso on turning tension into learning.

What can you do when you’re pretty sure someone is upset with you, but they won’t tell you what's really going on? For me, this is one of the most unsettling positions to find myself in, especially when I care about the other person. And for leaders, it’s all the more complex – especially if there’s any kind of power dynamic involved.

As he so often does, the TV character Ted Lasso shows us a powerful way to handle this kind of challenge. In the final episode of Season 2, after the team runs out onto the field, Ted and Nate are left in the locker room, and Ted can see that his assistant coach, Nate, is bothered by something. More than bothered, Nate’s pissed.

Image from Apple TV+
Ted and Nate
Source: Image from Apple TV+

(What you also need to know is that in the previous episode, Nate gravely undermined Ted by secretly leaking to the gossipy press that Ted had recently had a panic attack on the field. Ted was later tipped off that Nate was the one who leaked the information, but Nate is unaware that Ted knew about his betrayal.)

Ted follows Nate back into the coaches’ office and says, “Hey Nate…everything okay?”

Nate replies, in a tone dripping with sarcasm and bitterness, “Yes, Ted. Everything is o…kay.”

Instead of walking away or chastising Nate for being disrespectful, Ted comes closer to Nate and says in a serious but earnest tone, “What is it, hmm? What’d I do?”

Again, Nate rebuffs the question. Looking down at his phone, he shakes his head and says, “What are you talking about?” as if Ted’s query is ridiculous.

At this point, many of us might just give up or cast judgment on Nate. But once again, Ted hangs in there, leaning further into curiosity: “Oh come on man. You’re mad as hell at me. I just want to know why. Huh? What have I got to learn here?”

This line is a turning point in the conversation. Something in Ted’s authentic hunger to understand cultivates Nate’s willingness to finally let it out.

Nate pauses, turns towards Ted, and says, “You want to know what you did?”

“Yeah, please.”

Emotion welling in his eyes, Nate describes the immense pain he's been feeling — how Ted had originally given him a lot of attention but subsequently made him feel small, invisible, abandoned, rejected. “I worked my ass off trying to get your attention back, to prove myself to you, to make you like me again. But the more I did, the less you cared. It’s like I was f*&#!ing invisible.” Beyond the hurt he displays, Nate’s anger is palpable — in fact, he ends by lashing out at Ted and saying he should go back to where he came from.

Now, it would have been perfectly reasonable for Ted to be the angry one in this situation — after all, Nate was the one who betrayed his secret to the press. But because Ted's goal was to learn what was really going on, he didn't react with anger or defensiveness. He got curious about Nate, and as hard as this must have been for Ted to hear, he ended up discovering the true source of Nate's feelings and behavior.

I suspect that Ted was stunned and deeply saddened to find out how Nate had experienced him. Hearing that we’ve caused someone else pain is never easy, but it’s essential to repairing the relationship. And we can never truly know our impact on another person unless they tell us, which they often don’t unless we ask. In this case, none of it would have come out had Ted not asked Nate in the way he did, while persisting calmly in the face of Nate’s initial resistance to answer.

Think about it: How often do we fail to find out how we have impacted others around us, even (maybe especially) those we care deeply about? I know I have missed out on this learning on more than one occasion. It’s incredibly painful to later discover that my actions had unintentionally hurt or frustrated or upset a friend or colleague. It’s even worse when I realize I’ve found out too late to make it right.

I’m struck not only by Ted’s persistence but also by how he assumes such personal responsibility. After receiving Nate’s bitterly sarcastic reply, he could have easily walked away and attributed Nate’s behavior to something going on with Nate himself (“what’s wrong with that jerk!?!”). But if he’d done that, he would never have learned what he needed to find out from Nate, let alone lay the groundwork to rebuild their relationship down the road.

Instead, Ted focuses on his own contributions and invites direct feedback for his own learning. This not only creates a level of safety for Nate but also demonstrates the kind of earnest curiosity that is almost impossible for others to ignore. These moves aren’t easy. But if we can muster the courage and humility to ask, the rewards – both in the learning and in the connection – are well worth the risk.

More from Jeff Wetzler Ed.D.
More from Psychology Today