When you work with others, it is inevitable you will clash with someone at some point. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes we simply have differences in our personality, tastes or background that we think won’t fit into the mold of someone else. But differences can be useful. They add “flavor” to a company and most important, we can learn from other people. We should embrace others’ uniqueness. After all, we’re probably unique to them.

However, sometimes those differences might wear on us, especially if they border on bullying or meanness. We don’t know why a particular co-worker doesn’t invite us to lunch when she’s invited everyone else (especially if you work in a very small office). Or why it seems she strikes down all our ideas at every staff meeting. Or why it’s a struggle for her to even be cordial when we walk by and try to be friendly. While there may be a deeper issue developing, we want to make sure we aren’t the ones to jump to conclusions. Get the facts and learn if there is a compromise, or better – a solution!

While you can’t control others’ behaviors,  you can have control over your actions and your peace of mind.


Here are five steps we can take to communicate with our co-worker when the communication might need work. (Note: although the examples are in the feminine, the tips apply to everyone).

1. Be observant

Does this co-worker treat other co-workers the same? Is her tone, facial expressions and mannerisms similar with others? How does she respond to others when they ask her a question or give her a task?

You might realize that her response is simply her personality. If she treats others the same, you won’t take it personal. And if that’s the case, you’ll realize you’re being a bit sensitive over something that’s unnecessary. But should it end there?

2. Get to know your co-worker

In a working environment, your focus is work, so often it’s tough to socialize in that kind of atmosphere. But an open-ended question (one that requires more than a yes or no response) slipped in here and there might help you to know her a bit better. “What did you do that was fun this weekend?” is better than asking: “did you have a nice weekend?” If you know her kid had a big performance or game, you could inquire about that. “How did Johnny do with the big game?” “Did Suzy’s recital go okay? What did she play?” Other things you might ask could be about your co-worker’s classes, hobbies or the big yard sale she had over the weekend.

You can take advantage of opportunities such as the break room or walking to your cars together after work (if it wouldn’t be creepy).

It’s okay to show interest as long as there’s a balance. You don’t want to ask questions that are too personal (I’d stay away from medical issues unless she invites that), nor do you want to barrage her with questions as if she’s under a spotlight.

Over time, you might learn where she’s from, her family life and her hobbies. The great thing about this is once you know your co-worker better, you understand why she’s the way she is. You become more empathetic. And you don’t need to take it personally.

3. Compliment, but don’t flatter

Who doesn’t like a genuine compliment? These can really break the ice. However, they can also be unbalanced and cause more problems if done incorrectly, so here’s what you do and don’t do.

Do be sincere. We can tell when people are trying to flatter us. Their compliments sound contrived. They’re gushing. They’re plastic. They’re fake. They don’t really mean what they say. So when you compliment, make sure it’s real.

Don’t be too personal. You’re still trying to get to know the person. Make sure the compliment isn’t going to be insulting or rude, even though you don’t mean it that way. “Wow, you’re looking good after that surgery. It’s as if you were never sick.” Yikes! Unless you’re her BFF, she’s dealing with too much for you to be that personal, especially if you’ve never been through her situation. “Glad to see you’re holding your head so high considering your son is in prison.” “How did your colonoscopy go yesterday?” Think how you would feel if you were asked certain questions or heard the personal comment you might be about to make to someone else.

Do avoid sensitive triggers. Comments about hair color (or wigs or toupees or baldness), age, weight, or physical abnormalities are all sensitive issues. Unless you’re close – and even then – try to stay away from these. Again, balance is needed. If you know your co-worker has been on a special diet to lose weight and he or she is showing the positive effects and is happy about it, it’s probably okay to make an encouraging comment. “That diet plan is really working for you. I’m so proud of your efforts!” Be sincere and smile. Then take it another step: don’t bring in tempting treats.

4. Be kind

Kindness is everything in a relationship. Treat your co-worker, not the way you would like to be treated, but the way you think he or she would like to be treated. Smile when you talk to him or her. Hold the door open for her (although some people don’t like this. Personally, I still appreciate it when a man makes this gentlemanly gesture!). Don’t cut him off when he’s talking. Make sure the words that come out of your mouth are positive. If you see your co-worker is stressed and you have some time in your own schedule, ask if you can assist in any way, but without sounding threatening. Be specific if you can: “I’ve had to collect the information on XYZ company before. I realize this task can be time-consuming. Can I help you in any way?”

5. Have a one-on-one

After you’ve tried the above but it doesn’t seem to be working, you both may need to sit down for a one-on-one to talk about the situation.

Invite your co-worker to coffee, if it’s appropriate. Chat together during break when the situation is conducive. Enjoying one another’s company in a relaxed environment is a great way to break the ice. If that’s not possible, you can use a conference room, although that’s not as comfortable. You do want to make sure the conversation is private to avoid embarrassment.

How do you approach your co-worker about this? Try saying in a kind way: “Sara, I’d like to talk with you about something important. Would you have a few minutes around 2 p.m. today?” Sometimes the co-worker will still go on the defense and ask if there’s a problem. Don’t worry. Just respond: “Not that I’m aware of. But that’s why I’d like for us to talk.”

When you have your sit down, approach the conversation in a kind, non-combative way. Don’t point fingers and don’t be negative. Don’t blame or fault yourself until you know what’s going on.

Here is an effective approach: “Sara, I’ve been sensing lately some tension between us. I really enjoy working with you and I’d like for us to be more relaxed around one another, especially since we see each other every day. I’d like to ask: have I done something to offend you?” The reason this approach is effective is because it removes blame from your co-worker. It also shows her you want to work on this challenge. And it opens the door for her to speak freely. You may have to give specific examples. When you do this, again, don’t point the finger, just state the facts. “During our last meeting, I (offered this idea) and noticed you responded negatively in front of the team. When you said (this comment), it made me feel (embarrassed, humiliated, the idea was in inappropriate, etc.). Because this has happened before, I’m wondering if I’ve offended you or if there is some misunderstanding between us.”

What you’re saying to your co-worker is: “What can I do to make things right?”

Don’t be defensive if you don’t like the response. Acknowledge it. Ask questions to make sure you understand her point-of-view. And promise to keep these points in check so you’ll do better.

Misunderstandings and miscommunication are the causes of head butting. That’s why it’s important to ascertain the root cause of the negative situation. Doing this in a peaceful, non-threatening approach can open the door for valuable communication.

Shed the idea that the conversation is about who is right and who is wrong; it’s about working as a team to fizzle tension. You may be surprised that your calm, peaceful approach will relax your co-worker. The tension will melt as you work things out together. The work environment becomes more agreeable and pleasant.

However, if none of the above suggestions work, it might be time to call in a third party, such as your immediate supervisor. Having a third person to serve as mediator might do the trick at drawing out the issues and perhaps work on a solution. If there is a problem between co-workers that hasn’t been resolved, it’s also a good idea that a supervisor knows about it, especially if it’s affecting your work.

Remember that your goal is to work toward creating a harmonious and at the very least, amicable, setting. You are with your co-workers on a regular basis. You all face stresses. That’s why it’s important to get along and for everyone to be friendly. If you take it from the point of view that YOU have to do some work to maintain that kind of atmosphere, others may take note and follow your lead.