Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Steps to Confronting a Co-worker (That Don't Involve Either of You Crying)

Let’s start with that word: confrontation.

Every day of every work week, people avoid confrontations because they don’t want to address (or create!) hostility at work. Nor do they want to antagonize their co-workers, subordinates, or superiors with contrary principles or ideas.

And that’s a good thing. The surest way to start an argument you may never be able to resolve is to think of any conversation as a confrontation. So I’m going to ask you to remove that word from your vocabulary and replace it with the word conversation.

A confrontation suggests that you’re preparing to blame someone for something. Blame triggers shame, shame creates a defensive state of mind, and a defensive state of mind makes people dig in their heels to justify their conduct and vilify yours.

A conversation suggests an opportunity to share your concerns and listen—without judgment—to someone else’s narrative of events. It suggests understanding differences and identifying similarities. Conversation that doesn’t assess blame tends to lead to understanding and problem solving. And problem solving tends to lead to…a problem being solved!

After a decade of helping lawyers resolve disputes as a mediator and more than five years as a negotiation consultant, I find that people reach resolution (without ill feelings) if they follow these three easy steps during the conversation. Steps that will be illustrated today with the help of a hypothetical co-worker named Stephen, a man who just presented your thoughts (your thoughts!) as his during a recent team meeting.

1. Open the Conversation With Praise

Everyone responds favorably to praise, and everyone has done something praiseworthy during recent memory. So come up with a compliment before you even start the conversation.

You: Do you have a minute?

Stephen: Sure.

You: I wanted to talk to you about yesterday’s team meeting. I liked your idea about splitting up the team, by the way. If you need any help brainstorming that, just let me know.

Stephen: Oh, thanks.

2. Express Your Concerns Without Casting Blame

Say how you feel, the way you interpreted events, and the way those events affected you—without suggesting that your co-worker intentionally harmed you.

You: There were a couple of times that I felt you were taking credit for some of my work, as well as contributing your own great ideas. That whole firm retreat schedule, for instance, was pretty much word for word taken from the memo I sent you. By the time it was my turn to speak at the meeting, I didn’t have anything else to add to the conversation, which made me look unprepared.

Stephen: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest they were my own ideas. Remember when we had long conversations about that protocol? I thought we could both take credit for it.

3. Respond to Your Co-worker’s Explanation by Reflecting it Back to Him

This is a great opportunity to drive home why the behavior bothered you and offer suggestions for how it can be avoided in the future.

You: You’re right that we had some general discussions, but I frankly thought the protocol was mine. I’m happy to share credit with you in the future, but I feel disrespected when you take all the credit.

Stephen: I get that. Again, I didn’t mean to cut you out, but I can see your point of view. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’ll try to do better in the future.

Now, this is admittedly a rosy view of how people speak to each other at work. But if you follow these steps, you’re much more likely to get results from your conversation. And that’s what you want when you confront someone—results.

In my work as a negotiation consultant, I often work through conversations like this with my clients. They almost always learn that the conflict they believed existed wasn’t what their co-worker had in mind at all. Most workplace conflicts arise from misunderstandings or, at worst, thoughtless behavior.

When you seek to understand, rather than justify yourself at another’s expense, you create an environment that’s open to clarifying misunderstandings, correcting thoughtless behavior, identifying true areas of difference, reaching shared understandings, and fixing the problem you were justifiably afraid to confront.

Photo of chess game courtesy of Shutterstock.

A logo with "the muse" in white text.