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Pros and conflicts - handling workplace disputes without causing a scene

Luke Whitmore - Law on the Web

  1. 23 March 2015
  2. Employment
  3. 0 comments
Upset man yelling into phone

Everyone’s had the experience of dealing with difficult personalities in the workplace who make a job a lot harder than it needs to be. A lot of people will simply grit their teeth and get on with it, but this can lead to problems further down the line. So how do you tackle your problems with a colleague without making a scene? We take a look at the best way to cope with a troublesome co-worker.

Getting some perspective

Sometimes, learning to deal with a difficult colleague is as simple as taking a step back and looking at the problem from a different perspective. Are they being intentionally antagonistic, or is it simply a clash of personalities? Try to see things from their viewpoint, and remember that just because you dislike someone, that doesn’t mean they’re actually doing something wrong.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that you could be contributing to the problem; your reactions to them could be worsening the situation, or their attitude may actually be a response to yours in the first place. It’s advisable to picture your interactions from their point of view and consider if there’s any way you can change your approach to them in order to smooth your interactions.

Of course, sometimes your problems with a co-worker run deeper than this. Their working practices might be making your own job difficult, or they could be making you feel uncomfortable in the workplace. If, on reflection, you still feel like you have real issues with a colleague’s behaviour, it might be time to discuss it with them.

Discussing the issue

If you do have a real problem with a colleague, you shouldn’t just ignore it. It might seem like the easiest way, but it could mean that your issues with them bubble to the surface at an inappropriate time, like when everyone is already stressed from an upcoming deadline. If an issue is worth dealing with, it’s best to deal with it when you have the time and space to do so properly.

The key to handling most problems of this nature is good communication. Sit down and talk about it face-to-face with your colleague at a time that’s convenient for both of you. Try to avoid doing it immediately after a confrontation when tempers may be running high.

When initially explaining your problem with the other person’s behaviour, focus on your own responses to it – don’t level blame at them or make assumptions about what they’re doing. You might phrase the problem as “when you criticise my work in front of others, it makes me feel like you don’t respect me” rather than telling them “you’re always trying to make me look bad”.

It’s a good idea to note down some examples of the kind of behaviour you have a problem with. If you don’t cite specific instances, they might dismiss you as just looking for something to complain about. It’s also possible that your colleague genuinely doesn’t realise that they have been acting that way, and giving examples may help them to reflect on their behaviour.

It’s important to stick to the real issues when you’re talking to them – don’t bring up minor annoyances or ramble about unrelated incidents. You want to approach the issue from the point of view of a professional looking to improve relationships in the workplace, not simply someone who wants an excuse to vent at someone they don’t like.

Making suggestions as to how the problem could be fixed is also helpful, because it shows that you’re interested in solving the problem rather than just moaning at them about it. You could say things like “in future, if you have any suggestions to make, would it be alright for us to discuss it privately?”

Finding a solution

The easiest outcome is if your co-worker says they didn’t realise they were causing an issue – or did realise and knew they shouldn’t have been behaving that way – and promises to stop, but a lot of the time the solution will not be that simple.

After you’ve explained what the problem is, you should let the other person tell their side of the story. Don’t go on the defensive or try to prove them wrong while they’re doing this; instead, try to see things from their point of view and think about whether this makes any difference to the situation. If there genuinely is a clash of personalities between you, then you should be looking to reach a compromise which is acceptable to both of you, not simply to argue your side of things until they give in.

After they’ve finished talking, it’s a good idea to repeat back what you think they’ve said in your own words, letting them clear up any misunderstandings and demonstrating that you are paying attention to their opinions. You can then move on to discussing possible solutions to the problem.

Keep in mind that solving your problems will likely involve concessions from both sides. You may still not agree with the way the other person does things, but with a bit of consideration you will hopefully be able to find a way to work together without your differences coming to the fore.

Taking it further

If the other person isn’t receptive to reaching a compromise, or you can’t work something out between you even after discussing it, you may have to bring in a third party – likely a manager or someone from HR.

Approach these meetings in a similar way to the initial discussion – describe your side of things calmly, give examples of what you’re talking about so people can judge for themselves, and remain open to compromise. It’s in everyone’s best interests that colleagues get along at work, so if the issue seems otherwise unresolvable, management will likely want to take measures to help you and your co-worker reach an agreement.

If you need more information on the steps you can take regarding this kind of issue and the potential legal implications, take a look at our page on problems at work.

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