Expert advice for tactfully handling awkward, irritating situations in the workplace.

By Catherine Newman
Updated: May 17, 2019
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Unless you’re working all by yourself (lucky, lonely you), human interactions are required, and occasional flare-ups are inevitable. “Part of your job is building relationships,” says workplace consultant Lindsey Pollak, author of The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace ($20; amazon.com). “And when those relationships go awry, part of your job is repairing them.” Ideally, we are always bringing our most compassionate, flexible, and improvisational selves to these situations. “You’re so passionate about cucumbers!” I once told an editor after she ew into a rage about a cookbook sidebar. Another time I said, “It makes sense we’re all so stressed, being ER doctors,” to make a room full of deadline-cranky publishing folks laugh. And yes, sometimes it feels like I’m doing more diplomatic untangling than actual work, which is why I called on some experts. Beyond following the Golden Rule—which is always a good general practice—these were their suggestions for talking your way out of common office conflicts.

You share a work area with someone who is extremely messy.

Try as you might, you’re probably not going to change this person’s habits, says Pollak. So think through what your desired outcome is. Are there ways to separate the shared space better? Maybe you can place a vertical ling system between your desk area and theirs so the mess is not as much in view. Or try saying to your coworker, “I don’t want to micromanage, but I find the clutter so distracting. Could we work on this together?” A gentle nudge might be just what they need to tidy up.

You had a fight with a coworker, and now it’s awkward.

Can you let it go and move on? Then do. Or as Pollak puts it, just ignore the awkward. Time (and a little compassion) heals most wounds, and it will likely heal this one as well. But if a bad vibe is lingering, try to figure out what’s unresolved—and how to resolve it. Is there an apology you need to give or get? Set up a coffee date and make whatever reparations you can: “I still can’t believe I said you were obnoxious! It came out wrong, and I’m so sorry.” The worst thing you can do, says career expert Jill Jacinto, is avoid your coworker. “You want to be mending the relationship, rebuilding it. Say simply, ‘What do you think is the best way to put this behind us?’ and let them help guide the conversation.”

A coworker often stops by your desk to chat. You don’t want to be rude, but you need to work.

Try standing up when they walk over so they don’t sit down and get comfortable, suggests John Daly, PhD, a leadership consultant and professor of communication at University of Texas at Austin. Also, wearing headphones sends a clear visual cue that you don’t want to be interrupted. Have a couple of positive phrases at the ready: “I’d love to chat, but I’ve got to get these emails out,” or “I’m dying to hear more! Can we check in over lunch?” Focus on what you can offer, not on what you can’t, says Pollak. And when you do chat, think of it as an investment—five minutes a day to maintain the relationship.

A coworker constantly complains about their job. But you like your job! How can you avoid getting sucked into the negativity?

In this case (as in most others), a little courtesy and compassion can help a lot. Pollak recommends saying, “It sounds like you’re having a hard time, and I really sympathize. But I wonder if you should have a conversation with a career coach.” If the problem is the office environment—and not just the person’s attitude—you could suggest a visit with HR instead. But either way, you want to shift the burden to a third party better suited to help. “You’ve been talking to me about this for a
long time—maybe you need some fresh advice” is a friendly way to redirect their complaints. Support your coworker without contributing more than a sympathetic ear to the conversation. Avoid fanning the flames or roasting in a re of feelings you don’t share.

One of your coworkers always interrupts you and co-opts your ideas in meetings.

Raise a hand to signal “I’m not done yet,” or avoid eye contact with a likely interrupter and keep speaking, says Daly. You could also connect with a buddy before the meeting and ask them to stick up for you. “I think Clara wasn’t finished speaking yet,” your supporter might say, or “Yes, I think that’s a version of the idea Clara was sharing earlier.” If you feel the need to follow up after the meeting, try saying, “I’m not sure you’re aware, but sometimes you get so excited about ideas that I feel interrupted. Could you keep an eye on that?”

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