A pair of red boxing gloves hung up on a wall.
Alexis Naim

How to deal with a difficult co-worker (without losing your cool)

Alexis Naim

Are you frustrated with a difficult relationship at work? Challenging relationships with colleagues are a common problem. Even if your job is not inherently stressful, workplace proximity can lead to disagreements and conflict. These tensions build up over time and difficult workplace relationships can cause us to function from a place of survival where we become angry or fearful. That continued sense of threat in the work environment leads to a cycle of stress and frustration that is hard to break.

Here are four practical tools for assessing, addressing and defusing the situation.

1. Stop and breathe

When you run into conflict, it is easy to jump to conclusions and react from a place of fear or anger rather than thinking rationally. Take time to step outside of the situation and evaluate. Slow down, sit comfortably, maybe even close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath and your body. What sensations do you notice? Simply observe what you feel, any places you are holding tension, and let it go. When you have found a greater sense of calm, you can genuinely consider whether this person is really trying to hurt you, or whether there is a miscommunication.

2. Consider critique

A colleague passing criticism or judgment on you can be especially painful. Rather than letting it get the best of you, ask yourself: is any part of what they are saying true? If so, how can you use it constructively? If not, how can you let it go? Stewing over untrue criticism just makes you insecure. If you think there is truth in it, ask yourself where you can improve, and focus your energy on growing rather than spiraling into self-doubt.

Stepping outside of your immediate reaction to the person will improve not only your relationship with your coworker, but how you feel towards work in general.

3. Demonstrate compassion

Though it may seem impossible, practicing compassion will ultimately improve your sense of well-being. Instead of feeling anger and channelling negativity, imagine sending warm wishes like “may you be well” to your difficult colleague. You may also wish to consider the aspects of this person that you are grateful for, such as their dedication to work. It might be tough at first, but changing your perspective and stepping outside of your immediate reaction to the person will improve not only your relationship with your coworker, but how you feel towards work in general. All of this will allow you to be open during difficult interactions, not to take things personally and have a greater possibility of resolution.

4. Communicate clearly

If you are both reacting rather than responding, it may lead to unclear communication and hurtful statements – even if that is not your intention. When you feel yourself talking quickly, sweating or notice your heart rate increasing, it is a sign to calm down. Pause, take deep breaths and return to the conversation when you're ready.

If your colleague can’t let go or move on, you might need to be the bigger person.

If your colleague can’t let go or move on, you might need to be the bigger person. You could say, “This conversation is becoming heated and I think we should take some time to think before speaking again.” Taking breaks and pauses allows for communication that is open and thoughtful rather than quick and angry responses.

Navigating a difficult work relationship can feel intimidating, but try to see it as an opportunity. Tackling this in an emotionally mature way will make you a stronger communicator and more resilient person. Workplace conflicts happen, but you will have the skills to approach them openly and effectively. It may take time for things to change, but it is time well spent that will ultimately lead to growth.

Keeping your cool and staying productive has never been easier with Centr's workplace wellness program. Get in touch at partnerships@centr.com to find out more.

Alexis Naim

Psychotherapist Alexis Naim is co-founder of the La Maida Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rewriting the story of mental health and well-being. Trained at the University of California, Berkeley, before becoming a founding clinician in the family therapy program at UC, San Francisco, Alexis’s blogs and podcasts will help you connect, tap into resilience, and grow.

Alexis Naim


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