Pulling through tough conversations with co-workers

We’ve all had that experience of a coworker who does or says something annoying. And we let it slide. We don’t say or do anything about it.  Then, he does it again….and again, and again, until we are so irritated that we blow up and tell him all the things that have bugged us over the past 10 years.  And can you believe it, he gets all self-righteous and offended and goes on the attack!

Having a tough conversation with a co-worker can be like pulling out a tooth. It’s never fun.  But when the pulling is over, you feel better.  The trick is getting through it.

Pam Wyss and Tony Hansen of the King County Employee Assistance Program have some useful tips for pulling through those tough conversations.

Start by assuming the best.  The vast majority of people act with good intentions even though their impact may not be positive.  Better to start off assuming they meant well (or at least meant no harm) than that they intended to anger, offend, belittle, or embarrass you.  You’ll be perceived as less hostile in your approach and they, in turn, less defensive.

For example, Michael fails to introduce his co-worker, Johanna, to a high-profile guest who comes to their office to meet with Michael. Johanna feels disregarded and hurt by the exclusion. Rather than assume Michael does not like or respect her, Johanna makes the assumption that it was an oversight on his part and not meant to offend her.

Don’t approach them if you are still emotional about the interaction.  Request to meet with them sometime soon, within the next day or two.  Allow yourself time to gather your thoughts and be calm when you approach them.

Use “I” statements to avoid blaming the other.  This approaches clarifies your experience and invites a conversation that focuses on the issue rather than making it personal.

For example, Johanna says, “Michael, I was disappointed that I was not introduced to Dr. Garcia during his visit to the office this morning. I believe I am an integral part of the operations here and need to be included when upper management becomes involved. I also understand you may have a different perspective about that so I’m wondering if we can discuss this at our meeting tomorrow?”

Share your perspective and be curious about the other’s perspective. Describe what you saw and heard and the thoughts and feelings you had. But don’t assume your co-worker had the same experience.  If anything, assume he had a different perspective and that his is just as valid to him as yours is to you.  Find out what he experienced and then acknowledge what you have learned.

Share what you want going forward.  Be open to exploring what the other person wants also, even if his requests are different than yours.  Be ready to explore, ask questions, listen, and negotiate.  Look for solutions that work for both of you.

For example, Johanna says to Michael at the meeting the next afternoon, “Thanks for agreeing to discuss Dr. Garcia’s visit to the office yesterday. As I mentioned, I was disappointed I wasn’t introduced to him as I feel I am important to the operations here. I wanted to talk to you today to find out if you feel differently about that and to request that you include me when upper management comes over. Please share your thoughts, Michael, I’m interested in how you see this….”

Remember, you probably spend more waking hours with your coworkers than you do with your family and friends.  The work days will be much happier and less stressful if we have positive working relationships with our coworkers.

Contributors to this post include Pam Wyss, Tony Hansen, and Don Moritz.

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