Listen To The Story

We have Alison Green on Marketplace Weekend every month to answer your questions about the tricky, awkward or downright strange parts of being at work. Her new book "Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work," features new advice plus letters from readers featured on her popular blog of the same name. It's out next week, but you can read this crucial bit about talking with your co-workers right now.

Relationships with co-workers can be tricky. You spend an enormous amount of time around them, but you generally don't get to choose who they are. There's professional pressure to maintain reasonably good relations with them, which means that you can't always speak your mind in the way that you might with friends or family — and yet their behavior can have a huge impact on your quality of life at work, and sometimes on your work itself. On top of that, there are often internal politics to navigate, which can make even the most straightforward conversations feel fraught.

Given all of this, it's understandable that you might be hesitant to raise an issue with a co-worker. But so often, just approaching the problem in the right way will get you the results you want without introducing the kind of tension you might fear. In this chapter, I'm going to give you specific wording to help you do that.

The "Ask A Manager" book, out next week.
The "Ask A Manager" book, out next week. - 

First, though, I want to lay out some key principles that you can use whenever you need to approach a co-worker about something uncomfortable:

  • Use the same tone you would use to raise any other work-related problem. You want to use the same tone that you'd use to say, "Hey, I'm having trouble opening the spreadsheets you're sending me — can you help me figure out why?" Using that kind of tone — as opposed to a hesitant "I feel super-awkward about saying this" tone — makes your co-worker more likely to respond in kind.
  • Put yourself in the other person's shoes. If you were doing something that really annoyed a co-worker, wouldn't you want to know? Even if the conversation is a little awkward in the moment, some passing awkwardness is probably preferable to staying oblivious to something that's driving someone batty, especially if you can easily change your behavior.
  • In most cases, you should try to talk to your co-worker directly before escalating the situation to your manager. There are times when you should loop in your manager: if the problem is a very serious one (such as reporting sexual harassment or a co-worker who's cheating a client) or one that recurs after you attempt to address it on your own. But if the issue is more of an interpersonal one, your manager is likely to want you to address it on your own, at least to start. And really, you'd probably want someone to talk to you directly before escalating a concern to your boss, so it's good to give your co-worker that same consideration (again, with exceptions for very serious situations).
  • Own the message. Sometimes people are tempted to borrow the authority of a group when delivering a difficult message, which leads them to say things like "You're annoying everyone when you get so off-topic at meetings" or "None of us like having potlucks this often." But even if you know that others feel the same as you, framing things as if you're speaking for a group can alienate the person you're talking to. (You wouldn't be thrilled to hear that a group of people had been complaining to each other about you, after all.) This framing also can derail the message you're delivering if the person knows there's at least one other person who doesn't agree with you. It's okay to just speak on behalf of yourself ("I'd rather not have potlucks so frequently").
  • Sometimes being self-deprecating can make things easier. If you're worried that the message you want to deliver will come across as "There's something wrong with you," sometimes you can effectively reframe it as "This is just a weird thing about me." For example, if you want to ask a touchy-feely co-worker to stop hugging you all the time, you could say, "Please stop hugging me" — but it'll probably cast a chill on the relationship. You'll likely cause less awkwardness if you instead say something like, "Hey, I'm not a hugger. I know you mean it warmly; I'm just not very touchy-feely." Framing it as "It's me, not you" gets you results with minimal awkwardness. And if it doesn't work, you can always take a more serious approach. Important caveat here: This tactic makes sense in some situations and not in others. You needn't pretend it's your own idiosyncrasy that makes you not want to, say, hear racist comments.
  • Try to make things normal afterward. After an awkward or difficult conversation, try to find an opportunity soon afterward to have a normal conversation with the person about something else. That will reinforce that you're not upset and hopefully will help to reset the dynamic.
  • Not every issue needs to be raised. Working with other humans means that you're going to be around other people's annoying habits. It's okay to speak up when something makes it harder for you to do your job, seriously impacts your quality of life, or has unintended consequences. But some annoying things that co-workers do come with the territory of working in an office. If the offending behavior is relatively minor, sometimes it just makes sense to live with it, or at least to try for a while before deciding you can't.

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Follow Alison Green at @AskAManager