5 Tips for Confronting a Coworker (Before You Go to Your Boss)

Running into conflict at work is not unusual. Considering the fact about 56 percent of full-time workers say they spend more time with their "work family" than they do with their own families, it stands to reason colleagues are bound to get on each other's nerves at some point or another. How should you handle confrontation at work?

confronting a coworker

Confronting a person in your "real" family is one thing because you know in the end, they'll most likely still love you. However, when it comes to coworkers, maybe not so much. Running straight to your boss without first trying to find resolution is usually a bad idea because you'll potentially kick the conflict up to a whole different level. In most cases, you can probably resolve conflict amicably between you and your coworker.

1. Is it worth a confrontation?

Conflict avoidance never solved a problem, but being too aggressive can backfire. Before you approach your coworker, ask yourself if the issue is even worth a confrontation. Will it matter next week or year? If it won't bother you tomorrow, there's probably no value in discussing. On the other hand, if your colleague is engaging in unethical, harmful, or just super-annoying activities, you'll want to say something before the situation spirals downward.

2. Avoid using electronic communication

If you're going to confront, don't do it by firing off a text, email, or other electronic communication. This leaves too much potential for the conflict to escalate. It's hard to effectively convey what you want to say in a sensitive situation without tone and nuance being obvious. Your intended message might be misconstrued and make an awkward situation way worse.

Besides, it's just good etiquette to talk with someone you have a problem with on a more personal level. A face-to-face chat is more conducive to clearing the air because texts are often too ambiguous. While it's true talking in person is more difficult, in the end, you'll have better results—or at least be better able to come to a mutual understanding.

3. Be proactive, not reactive

A proactive approach will go a long way toward saving the relationship or at least maintaining an amicable and bearable work rapport. You'll increase your chances of resolving the problem without residual ill feelings.

  • Take time to cool off if you're feeling angry or think it's possible you'll lose your temper.
  • Think carefully about what you plan to say to your coworker before you say it.
  • Always be sure you have accurate information—never assume or assign blame without having all the facts.
  • Be tactful with your word choices.

If you handle a confrontation badly and drive a wedge between yourself and your coworker, you can end up with a work relationship that’s difficult to face day after day.

4. Keep calm

Work relationships differ from other friendships because you have to remain professional and keep your emotions in check. Approach the situation as a conversation, not as one where you're looking to pick a fight. When you begin to talk to your coworker, try to frame your concerns without using combative words such as "always" and "never". These aren't productive and are likely to escalate the situation.

  • Keep the conversation focused on the issue at hand.
  • Give the benefit of the doubt and see what your coworker has to say.
  • Avoid making the discussion personal in nature-stick to the issue.

If the conversation gets too heated, know when to take a deep breath and walk away. Try to resume the conversation at a later time.

5. Be an active listener

Once you state your side, be sure to give your coworker the same courtesy. Actively listen to what they have to say. Their feedback may be something you hadn't considered. Even if you don't totally agree, at least be open-minded enough to consider their viewpoint.

Once you resolve your issue, be prepared to drop it and move on. If it can't be resolved, and the issue is a serious one, you may need to go to your boss or HR to get resolution. If it gets to this point, be sure you've documented the situation.

Research has found 70 percent of people believe forming friendships with their colleagues is a "crucial element" to happiness at work. Work relationships aren't unlike personal ones. They need nurturing too. Talking a conflict out goes a long way toward preserving professional relationships. As a general rule of thumb, don't internalize your upset and let frustration or resentment build up too long. This often leads to large blowups and intensified conflict. However, clearing the air helps to keep a happy and healthy balance in your work relationships.

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