Work is a social environment like any other, and any office is going to bring together a diverse collection of personalities and people. Even if you’re on your best behavior, chances are you’re going to conflict with someone along the way. But we’re all adults here, so it’s important to be mindful of a few things when trying to work out your differences.
1. Be the bigger person
It can be hard to back down from a fight (especially when you’re sure you’re in the right!) but sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and ask yourself if stirring up conflict is really worth it. This isn’t always easy; after all, sometimes a co-worker is just spoiling for an argument. Alex Cameron, a graduate student at Emerson College with several retail jobs under her belt, says she once had a co-worker who constantly complained that she was being forced to do more work than everyone else, even though that was far from true. The only way to keep things civil was to avoid rising to the bait. “If you said anything,” Alex says, “it only prolonged her anger.” Usually, once the co-worker had exhausted her complaints, “she realized she was being ridiculous and apologized.”
It’s always best to try to keep the peace. You never know what’s going on in a co-worker’s life that is making them unhappy and it’s never a good idea to get into an argument just to work out your own frustrations, either. You’ll probably end up doing more damage than either of you ever intended.
2. Politely tackle the issue head-on
Avoiding conflict can be appealing, but sometimes walking away from the problem only makes things worse. If these issues don’t seem to be solving themselves, it’s probably time to talk things out. It’s important, though, not to go in with a fight in mind. Approach your co-worker in a neutral or private place-somewhere where you won’t draw the attention of the whole office-and ask if she’s got time to try and resolve things. Even invite her out for coffee, if you feel like that would be appropriate. Make sure to demonstrate that you’re ready and willing to talk things through.
Then comes the hard part: actually talking things through. Jamie Broder, an attorney and mediator with a background in resolving workplace conflicts, advises that, right at the start, “Each co-worker should identify the points of contention between them.” Even if you disagree with the points that the other person is making, it’s important to listen to her grievances. Otherwise, how will you ever take steps to work things out?
3. Don’t talk about your co-worker behind her back
Workplace conflict is stressful and it’s normal to want to vent your feelings. But keep that venting out of the workplace. Things only get worse when you share your frustrations with other co-workers, regardless of whether or not they agree with your point of view. Any office needs to run smoothly and it can’t really do that when everyone is talking trash behind someone’s back. And it will only make things worse when you finally try to resolve the issue with the co-worker in question—you don’t want to add malicious gossip to her list of grievances!
If you do need to talk things through with someone else, stick with family members or friends who don’t work in the same office. Moderation is key, though. You don’t want to complain so much about your workplace drama that the people who care about you can’t stand to listen anymore.
4. When in doubt, appeal to a neutral party
Okay, so maybe you’ve tried sitting down for coffee or just a conversation with the person you’re butting heads with and the two of you just can’t manage to see eye to eye. It’s never a good feeling to take your problems to another person, but if you and your co-worker can’t talk out your issues on your own, you might want another person’s input. The two people involved in the dispute “should choose a trusted and neutral mutual friend or co-worker to facilitate their discussion if necessary,” Broder says. “In a larger company that has a Human Resources department or group, there might be someone who could help.”
Stay away from turning to your boss, though. They’re less interested in your personal problems and more concerned with how employees are working together. Or, as Broder puts it, “In most cases, a supervisor would not be ideal because supervisors evaluate employees on a whole host of factors which likely include their ability to get along with others in the organization.” So even if you are completely blameless in the whole thing, you probably won’t come out looking great if you drag your supervisor into the conflict with you.
5. Make sure the conflict is actually resolved
All this work is going to be for nothing if everyone walks away without having actually gotten to the root of the issue. In order to avoid this, Broder suggests that “co-workers should discuss each point of contention seriously and respectfully and try to reach compromises to resolve each of them.” Treating every one of your co-worker’s issues as a valid concern is central to solving the problem. Is she saying that you didn’t pull your weight during a joint project? Or complaining that you fail to respond to emails in a timely manner? It helps no one if you just try to deny the accusations without giving them a second thought. So even if you disagree, take some time to think about whether or not you can work a little harder in the future. If you’re willing to listen to your co-worker’s issues, she will probably be willing to do the same for you.
Of course, it’s important not to just roll over in the hopes of getting things resolved quickly. But it’s equally necessary to compromise when the situation calls for it. Putting in the hard work now will save you—and your co-worker—a lot of headaches down the road.