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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

A Realistic Plan for Making Peace With a Co-worker You Can't Stand

Maybe you and your co-worker have polar-opposite beliefs on every single, little thing. Maybe the way he taps his pen on his desk drives you crazy. Or maybe you two just can’t get through a team outing without throwing little barbs at each other. Whatever the case, nearly everyone has a certain colleague who gets on their nerves at the office. And when you have to work closely with that person on the same project or team, it can make your life a whole lot more stressful.

But if you find yourself in that situation, don’t throw in the towel just yet. In my time in the HR field, I’ve seen some truly inspiring transformations. While they may not have ended up best friends, plenty of employees once at odds with each other have been able to set aside their differences and come together for the good of the team. And throughout all of those success stories, I’ve noticed a few common steps.

Give Yourself Space and Rebuild Slowly

When faced with a challenge, a lot of talented, driven employees want to dive in and come up with a solution right away. But when tempers are high, giving yourself a little bit of breathing room can be the most productive first step you can take. If you and your co-worker have had a particularly negative encounter recently or have just been on shaky terms for a while, take a few days or so to keep your distance and gather your thoughts.

Politely explain that you want to push pause for a bit just to cool down, then try sitting in a different area, postponing one-on-one meetings, or if it’s possible, working from home for a day or two. (And if sitting far apart or spending time away from each other is impossible, create a space around yourself by wearing your headphones and avoiding as many situations as possible in which you’ll come face to face.)

Be the Bigger Person and Reach Out

Once you’ve come back from clearing your mind, start building the relationship up again slowly. You might want to shelve any non-urgent issues for the time being and try to chat on a personal level.

Invite her to lunch or out for drinks and make it clear that you won’t be bringing up work matters. Instead ask how she’s doing, what she’s been up to lately, or even what she likes to do in her free time. Not only will this help you humanize your co-worker, it can help you understand where she’s coming from and why she’s been difficult to work with. And sometimes getting out of the office can make all the difference in the conversation’s tone and flow.

From my own experience, I was able to view a colleague I’d been butting heads with much more positively after getting to know about his family. That, combined with a week of limited contact with him, helped me realize he was more than just the guy who steamrolled me in meetings all the time—he was a good person who just happened to get carried away sometimes. And with that knowledge, I was in a much better space to listen, comprise, and ultimately find a solution.

Acknowledge the Elephant in the Room

Having a tough conversation’s never fun, but if you really want to make things better, you need to eventually talk with your co-worker about the issues you’ve been having. Not in that first meeting, but in the one after. Trust me: No matter how well you think you can swallow your emotions, the tension will keep building up until it eventually boils over.

Fortunately, major collaboration issues are usually due to a misunderstanding or difference in communication styles—meaning they can be fixed if both parties are willing to put in the effort.

So, the next step’s to simply acknowledge what you think is going wrong. Make sure to use plenty of “I” statements (I feel, I think, and so on) so your colleague can understand your perspective without feeling like you’re accusing or attacking them. Keeping your communication style in mind, lay out what you personally need in order to thrive, whether that’s more positive feedback, a greater degree of transparency, more adherence to deadlines, faster responses to urgent emails, or whatever else you think is bothering you. Odds are that this person’s not trying to offend you—it’s just his natural behavior and he didn’t know it was bothering anyone.

After you’ve shared your thoughts, invite your co-worker to weigh in as well. Communication’s a two-way street, and his perspective needs to be heard just as much as yours does. Then, once you’ve aired it all out in the open, it’s time to apologize for any bad blood that may’ve been transpired, come up with a plan of action for how you’re going to turn it around, and pledge to hold yourself accountable.

In an ideal world, one conversation is all it would take to mend a wounded working relationship. And sometimes, that’s exactly how it works out—which is great! But more often than not, you’ll need to put some ongoing thought and effort into ensuring that you and your co-worker can collaborate the way you need to.

The good news is that I fundamentally believe that as long as two parties are each willing to adapt their work style, there’s no reason they can’t be successful. Of course, every once in a while you’ll run into somebody who’s not as flexible as you might like. In that situation, you might find yourself having to accommodate them a bit more, which can be challenging. But if you keep the lines of communication open, maintain a plan of action, and lean on your manager HR for help when needed, you should be in good shape to get along with a co-worker you can’t stand.

Photo of co-workers talking courtesy of Thomas Barwick/Getty Images.

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