There’s almost nothing worse than being wronged by someone at work. Except for then having to confront the person who’s wronged you. Unfortunately, conflicts in the office are sometimes inevitable, and the only option is to deal with them—in a positive, professional way.
Confronting a colleague isn’t always easy, but it is possible. When things aren’t going right in the office, here’s how to keep your cool, address the issue, and even build stronger relationships with your co-workers in the process.
1. Give the Benefit of the Doubt
First off, before you jump to conclusions (and confrontations), start with the assumption that others may have acted with the best of intentions—and that you might not know the whole story. I once received a phone call from a co-worker telling me that that another teammate of ours had described progress on a big project (one that I had been working on, too) in a meeting that I had to miss, and hadn’t once mentioned my name or contributions. Of course, this was a huge blow, and I was upset. But instead of seething in my office, I asked that co-worker to grab a cup of coffee with me. I calmly told her what I’d heard, and how it made me feel.
Turns out, I didn’t have all the information. The co-worker who initially called me wasn’t present at the beginning of the meeting—and she had missed the part where my partner explained that everything the group was about to hear was the result of our teamwork. Lesson learned.
So instead of assuming and allowing resentment to build, when you hear something that upsets you, go straight to the source and ask for clarification. You might be surprised.
2. Resist the Urge to Email
Very few people enjoy confrontation, and most of us do what we can to avoid it—including hiding behind the safe shield of email. Unfortunately, this only aggravates the problem. No matter how much you dislike confrontation, or how malicious (you think) your co-worker has been, watch carefully what you say over email. It’s easy for those typed words to get interpreted a million different ways, and who knows where your message could get forwarded? Refrain from shooting off that strongly worded email and instead, ask for a face-to-face conversation.
3. Sit Down and Talk
Even if the issue is deeper than just a simple misunderstanding, talking is just about always the best place to start. Find a time to sit down privately with your colleague and talk with her about your concerns. Spell out specifically what she did—for example, “you didn’t mention my contributions when you were presenting our work to the VP on Thursday” is a whole lot better than “you never give me credit for what I do.” Explain how it made you feel or why it upsets you, but also try to offer a solution. By focusing on what you can both do differently moving forward, rather than dwelling on the offense, you can build trust, resolve the issue faster, and help to avoid additional misunderstandings.
For example, say you heard that your co-worker is complaining that you’re getting to spearhead a new project. You could say: “Amy, I understand that you’re concerned about how we’re moving forward with this project, but I wish that you had come to me before talking to others. I’m happy to share my plans and ideas with you, and I’d love your input. Are there specific questions you have that I can answer?” Also, avoid being too aggressive—otherwise, you’ll just put her on the defensive.
4. Write it Down
You don’t want to bring your manager in on every problem you’re having with every person—especially if it’s a small thing or not a bona fide work issue (like someone playing her music too loud). But it’s also important to protect yourself in case the offense isn’t just a one-time thing—especially if it impacts your work or your professional relationships. If the issue could be serious, keep a written record of the incidents and your conversations with your colleague. It’s likely that you won’t need it, but should the conflict escalate, you’ll want to be able to show how you’ve handled the situation proactively and professionally.
5. Pick Your Battles
Finally, keep in mind that you don’t have to confront everyone, every time—making an issue out of every little thing will only create unnecessary tension in the office. So, next time you’re upset about that colleague who never washes her dishes or who always has to have the last word in a meeting, take a break and walk around the block. Think about the problem, and consider whether or not it’s really something you need to go to the mat for.
In the end, save your energy for real problems—someone who’s not pulling her weight on a team project or who’s deliberately undermining you—and let the little stuff go.
No matter where you are in life or the office hierarchy, you’re bound to experience conflict in the workplace. But knowing how to deal with it effectively, with professionalism and flexibility, is the ticket to getting ahead. And at the end of the day, that’s really all you can control.