How To Handle A Conflict With A Coworker

by Caitlin Flynn

Though you may not think of yourself as being "close" with your coworkers, the facts are that many of us spend more hours per week with the people we work with than we do with our own family and friends. Because of this, we can sometimes become incredibly tight with our coworkers — after all, considering how much there is to bond over in the workplace, work friends often make the best friends. But the flip side is that we can also become embroiled in brutal fights, arguments and conflicts with the people who share cubicle space with us — conflicts that haunt us long after we clock out.

Workplace disagreements and tension are inevitable — no matter how much we love our careers, the office can be a stressful, competitive place and that doesn't always bring out the best in everyone. Handling these office conflicts can be confusing, though. We can't apply tactics that might work when we're fighting with a friend, like simply avoiding them and hoping the problem will blow over. And since this conflict is going down in a professional setting, we have to be extra careful with our words, attitude and general handling of the situation. But when we put aside our egos and are willing to listen, find common ground, and respectfully engage with our coworkers, we can usually learn a lot from a disagreement — or, at the very least, diffuse it.

At some point in your career, you're going to end up in a conflict with a colleague. When that time comes, here are eight ways to resolve it in a professional and courteous manner that will leave you feeling confident (and, more importantly, won't get you fired):

1. Don't Gossip About The Conflict

When you're clashing with a coworker, venting to your work wife may feel satisfying in the moment — but office gossip has the potential to backfire really quickly. First of all, there are ears everywhere, and you'll rightfully look unprofessional if anyone over-hears you badmouthing a colleague. Secondly, it's unfair to the person you're having conflict with, because everyone still has to work together (including your friend, who is getting unfairly stuck in the middle of all of this). Plus, who wants a rep as the person at work who talks trash about everyone else?

We all need to vent after a tough work day, but when the problem is a colleague conflict, try to call a friend or family member once you're home instead of letting off steam in the break room.

2. Address The Conflict Sooner Rather Than Later

If trouble has been brewing between you and a coworker for a while, don't wait until you both feel completely hostile towards one another. Addressing the issue early will prevent it from snowballing into an even bigger problem — especially if the problem actually turns out to be a misunderstanding or a relatively small issue.

However, if you got into a sudden argument with a coworker, it's best to wait until both of you have calmed down and can have a level-headed conversation. You won't gain anything by forcing a confrontation (this applies to the world outside work, too, of course).

3. Discuss The Problem Face-To-Face

Don't let the problem marinate any longer than you have to; schedule a face-to-face meeting in a private setting with your coworker, and block off plenty of time so that both of you can express where you're coming from.

It may be tempting to solve things via email, especially if the idea of conflict makes you cringe. But trying to resolve a disagreement in that manner is inefficient and can potentially make the situation worse — it's really easy to misunderstand someone's thoughts when they're not accompanied by things like a tone of voice or facial expressions. And this is especially true when both parties are feeling defensive. So suck it up, and talk in person — sometimes, this gesture alone is enough to defuse things.

4. Try To Find Common Ground

Instead of jumping right into your grievances when you meet up, set a cordial tone by identifying something you both can agree on — even if it's somewhat abstract. Saying something like "We both want this project to work" or "We're both passionate about this company's mission" will remind you both that, even if you're not wildly fond of each other, it's your job to collaborate in order for your department and team to succeed. Even "We both want this office to be a nice place to work" might help.

5. Keep An Open Mind And Listen

You're probably not going to walk out of the meeting in complete agreement. But as human resources consultant Susan Lankton-Rivas told, resolving workplace conflict isn't about getting one person to entirely change their mind. And if you go into the room with an open mind, you're far more likely to find common ground with your coworker, and thus significantly defuse your conflict.

The key ingredient to understanding a coworker's point of view is listening to how and why they feel how they feel. When it's your colleague's turn to talk, hear them out and don't interrupt. However, once they've made their case, don't be afraid to ask respectful and thoughtful questions if you feel unclear about any points they raised. You are really trying to understand things, after all.

6. When It's Your Turn To Talk, Stay Calm

When we have disagreements with our friends and family members, things often get heated and emotional. But in the workplace, we don't have the luxury of letting our tempers get the best of us. Not only will it escalate the conflict — it could also earn you a reputation for being difficult to work with, which can both dampen your career prospects and lead to fewer invites to join the gang for lunch quesadillas. So take any steps you can to maintain a level head while explaining your point of view.

Easier said than done, you might be thinking. But there are steps you can take to help yourself stay calm and collected. If you're prone to becoming emotional quickly, bring notes with your key points and refer to them to keep yourself on track. It may even be helpful to role play the "worst case scenario" with a friend the evening before your meeting. How will you respond if your colleague is hostile and dismissive? You can hope for the best, but if they exhibit unprofessional behavior, don't let it bring out the worst in you.

7. Know When You Need To Involve A Third Party

We're all adults and most disagreements can successfully be handled between the two people who aren't seeing eye-to-eye. But there are a few exceptions that we should all be aware of. If, for example, you're dealing with a case of workplace harassment, that's a totally different scenario than disagreeing with a colleague on how a project should be approached or being annoyed by the way that a coworker hogs the plum assignments.

If a colleague has mistreated you because of your gender, race, sexuality, religion or age — whether by sexually harassing you, making threats or just acting cruel — it's not "tattling" to speak with your supervisor and Human Resources. Seriously — HR is there to deal with problems like this, and they deal with them every day. They'll know what to do and how to help you.

8. Learn From Both The Conflict And The Resolution

While you and your colleague may never be best friends, it'll be a huge relief when you're finally reached a détente. But that doesn't mean you'll never have coworker drama again. So it's always good to reflect back on what caused the conflict in the first place and what was most (and least) helpful during the resolution.

Be introspective and recognize how your own actions may have contributed to the issue — even if they were unintentional. During the resolution, was there a moment when you or your coworker said something that helped turn the conversation's tone from tense to cordial? Use the process as a learning experience for the next time trouble rears its ugly head across your cubicle.

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