One of my blog readers recently shared with me that she was experiencing troubling conflict with one of her colleagues at work. The tension between them was stressing her out, causing distraction throughout the office, impacting her ability to get her work done, and even affecting her sleep at night. She said she was ready to stop wasting time and energy on the conflict, and focus on getting it resolved!
She was hopeful that if she and her co-worker could just carve out some space and time to talk it out respectfully, they could clear the air, put the conflict behind them, and get things back on track. Great idea!
She decided she wanted to approach her colleague with the idea of them working on their issues together–but [big gulp] wasn’t sure how to go about doing this—and doing this in a way that would yield positive results and mitigate the risk of making things even more tense between them!
Here’s my response.
First, I want to reassure you that if you feel uncomfortable with approaching a colleague about a conflict, you are not alone! Conflict resolution is a topic that can feel awkward for anyone to raise. Second, please know that your positive intention–to work on resolving the issues between you two—is an incredibly important first step in any conflict resolution effort. Kudos!
The goal from here is to, as respectfully and gracefully as possible, let your colleague know you think there is an issue between the two of you and request a private meeting for the two of you to talk about it.
Here are some tips to assist you in raising the topic of conflict resolution with your co-worker:
1. Do it in person and not via email. Interpersonal face-to-face interaction is a must here! It’s not easy to talk person-to-person about this kind of sensitive stuff; but doing so is not only respectful and courteous, it’s also courageous—and that says a lot about you! And frankly, there is just too much room for misunderstanding and miscommunication via email—especially in a situation like this where there is heightened emotion involved.
2. Be mindful of where and when you introduce the conflict resolution topic to your colleague. Try to pick a time and place that will be best received by your colleague.
Where ~ be sure that you are approaching your colleague privately, without onlookers, so you can ask for a meeting without causing any embarrassment or humiliation. Raising the conflict topic in a room full of peers, for example, will likely cause a negative reaction from your co-worker. It might even cause you to be viewed as insensitive or inappropriate–and that can add to the conflict.
When ~ pick a time to approach your colleague that he/she will likely be able to listen, to focus, and to truly consider what you are asking without distraction. Introducing the topic on a high-stress day an hour before your colleague’s big deadline is probably not going to yield you the agreeable result you are looking for.
When you’ve identified an appropriate place and time to bring up the topic, an amiable way to start the conversation might be to say:
“Hey Kelly, I’d like to have just a couple minutes of your time to ask you something. Is now a good time?” If the answer is yes, say “thank you” and go for it. If the answer is no, say “No problem. I understand” and then ask when would be a more convenient time.
3. It’s ok to admit you feel uncomfortable.
In fact, admitting as much can actually help to level the playing field, distribute the power between the two of you, and show your own vulnerability. Feeling awkward, nervous, or uncomfortable are authentic (and 100% normal) reactions in a delicate scenario like this.
You might try saying something like:
“Hmmm I feel a bit awkward” OR “this is actually quite difficult for me” OR “the truth is, I’ve wanted to come to you about this for a while but wasn’t exactly sure how to do that.”
4. Ask rather than tell. When you introduce the idea that there is trouble brewing between the two of you (even if you feel that you are simply calling out the very obvious huge elephant in the middle of the office), try the soft approach of offering your perspective as being from your perspective rather than the hard approach of telling your colleague it is so! Stating that “there IS conflict between us” could come off as an accusation or make you seem like an autocratic thug who is decreeing it is so. Prefacing your words with “in my opinion…” or “from my perspective…” or “the way I see it is…” make it more likely the other person will stay open to hearing your message.
If you mention the conflict between the two of you as something you have noticed, as something you feel, or as something you see from your humble perspective; and then ask your colleague if he/she shares a similar perspective, it sets the stage for a mutually respectful discussion where both of your opinions matter. You are not telling your co-worker what’s what; rather you are asking. Big difference!
For example, you might say:
“I wanted to mention to you that I’ve noticed some tension between us lately. Have you noticed that too?” OR maybe “From my perspective, we don’t seem to be working together as well as we used to. Do you think that too?”
5. Let ‘em know you value your work relationship. It is human nature to want to be valued in any relationship. Communicating to your colleague that your work relationship with him is important, that you value your work relationship with her, and that you want a good work relationship with him—is powerful stuff!
For example, you might say:
“Our work relationship is really important to me. I want us to be able to work together well and be able to come to each other.”
6. Anticipate your colleague’s possible concerns—and address them up front. For example your colleague may be concerned about the true purpose of the meeting, or fearful that the conversation between the two of you will get heated, that the conversation will be public, that you won’t listen to each other, that there will be yelling etc.
You could say something like this:
“I’d like to have a respectful conversation with you so we can understand each others’ point of view, clear up any misunderstanding that might be going on between us, and come up with some solutions that work for both of us so we can work without any tension.”
Putting it all together
Every one has their own words that will feel most appropriate for them. Putting it all together then, here’s an example of what you could say as you broach the conflict resolution topic with your colleague:
“Hey Sal, I’d like to have just a couple minutes of your time to ask you something. Is now a good time? [Sal: Sure]. Ok great. Thanks. Actually I must admit I feel a bit awkward raising this topic. But here goes. I wanted to mention to you that I’ve noticed some tension between us lately. Have you noticed that too? [Sal: Yes, No, I don’t know]. Well I want to say that our work relationship is really important to me. I’d like to ask you if you would be willing to schedule a private meeting with me to talk about the way we have been working together, and how we could maybe make it better for both of us? I’d really like us to have a respectful conversation, in private just the two of us, so we can understand each others’ point of view, clear up any misunderstandings, and figure out how to get rid of the tension I/we perceive.”
I love to help folks resolve and prevent conflict at work. Are you dealing with a troublesome conflict situation at work and would like some suggestions, tips, or advice? Please contact me here privately with your questions or concerns, and I will be happy to assist!