Talking with trouble: A communications expert explains how and why to confront fraught relationships at work

It takes courage to attempt to repair a difficult relationship at work
01 January 2022
By Galen Emanuele
diagram of relationships

It's inevitable that throughout your career you will encounter challenging relationships or negative situations with coworkers. These can range from minor annoyances to feelings of dread when forced to interact with a colleague who, for you, means trouble.

It takes courage to attempt to repair a difficult relationship at work or to address a challenging situation, but the possibilities for a good outcome make it worthwhile.

The impact of addressing and repairing tough situations isn't just about the interactions with a person you don't get along with. It's about the number of times you've complained to friends and family about the situation, the distraction it causes you at work, the added stress of having angry conversations play out over and over in your head, and the general impact of this brand of negativity on your overall happiness.

In short, relationships fraught with friction can be catastrophic to your peace of mind and they often wreak havoc on your performance and engagement as a team member at work.

But you can start to turn these situations around before they inevitably pop up at annual review time. The truth is that if every leader and employee were able to repair one or two strained relationships at work, this would have a huge, positive impact on workplace culture and team performance.

Start by approaching your colleague in "cold blood," meaning at a time when you aren't in the middle of friction or frustration, and when things are not emotionally charged between you.

Acknowledge that you've felt zapped by some static electricity in the relationship, and that there are times when things feel especially challenging between the two of you. Invite a conversation, if your coworker is willing to talk about how you (yes, you) might be able to show up differently and contribute to making things easier between yourselves.

"In my experience I've observed times when things feel challenging between the two of us, and I feel some static or frustration. If you are open to it, I would be willing to have a conversation about how I might be able to show up differently and contribute to making things easier between us, and how we can work better together."

Keep it simple and straightforward. This approach is plain and direct, and you take ownership without making accusations. The way you approach a difficult conversation is extremely important, as is how you proceed.

Here are five steps to move through a difficult conversation:

Don't corner or force a conversation on your colleague. Depending on the context and dynamics of your relationship with that person, it could feel like a blindside. Putting them on the defensive will reduce the chance of it being a productive conversation.

Give an option to say "Yes" now or to think about it, collect their thoughts, and get back to you later. The benefit is that your colleague is choosing to have the conversation. This approach puts most people in a much more receptive headspace instead of one that is reactive and defensive.

Go in asking and listening—not talking. Ask questions that will allow you to hear your colleague's perspective and learn more about what might be going on for them. Find out if there is a way for you to show up differently to improve things for both of you.

The reality is that even if you believe that you are 100 percent squeaky clean and have done nothing to contribute to the off-key situation or faulty relationship, that is likely not the case. They may have a long list of grievances to air about you.

If you truly want to repair this relationship or situation then you must ask and listen and be willing to hear the other person's perspective, even if you don't agree.

After hearing them out, create an opportunity to share your experience. This can be as easy as asking, "Are you open to hearing my perspective and where I'm coming from?"

Take ownership of any ways that your actions may have contributed to a fraught situation and make amends where needed. Focus the conversation on pinpointing the source of friction in the relationship and finding a resolution.

Avoid circling around and around what each party may have done wrong or, worse, seek to extract a pound of flesh for past hurts. Acknowledge what's past and move forward.

Ask, "What does a 10 out of 10-point resolution look like for you and me?" Both parties should share what an ideal relationship would look like. This includes how you communicate and interact, what the process of how you work together would look like, and how you both can show up differently.

Navigating and resolving conflict at work can be extremely difficult. Depending on the context of your problematic relationship with a coworker and where that person is at in their life or workplace situation, you must be fully prepared that the conversation may not have the result you want.

Your colleague might reject the offer to work things out. They might refuse to admit anything is wrong or out of place at all. They might not be willing or capable of having a difficult conversation in the first place. These types of conversations require courage, vulnerability, owning your behavior, and acting like an adult.

Sometimes, simply extending an invitation to talk and smooth things over breaks tension and helps both parties to relax. The point is, prepare yourself for any outcome and don't be too attached to the resolution you want.

It's worth it for you and the people around you to make the effort, take ownership of what you can in a fraught relationship, and try to reach a better place. Who knows, you might gain a new friend.

At the very least, initiating a difficult conversation can counteract negative interpersonal dynamics and a sworn enemy might become a person you can at least work with instead. Either way, finding the courage to talk about a difficult relationship and being open to change is a huge win.

GALEN EMANUELE is a speaker and consultant who transforms how teams and organizations approach and establish culture, and perform together at work.

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