Toe-to-Toe: Ways To Handle Conflict With A Colleague

Have you ever had a conversation with a colleague and all of a sudden noticed how enraged they got, as they yell at you about your ideas, work ethic, or lack of ability? As you try to rationalize the reasoning behind their outburst you hear them say, “No one appreciates all the work I do for this company!”

And that’s when you know you’ve hit a nerve. How did this happen? What did you say to cause this outburst? In order for you to come to some sort of common ground with the co-worker you might have offended, you must first resolve the conflict. But where do you start?

Unfortunately, in a hostile situation like this, it will do more harm than good to react based off instincts. Whether that’s screaming back at that person, or starting a physical altercation, this will only make things worse. The good news, however, is that you can use this opportunity to counter your initial reaction and shift the conversation to something more positive.

In other words, approaching the conflict from a positive point of view rather than a negative – this can be difficult for some people, especially after being yelled at by a co-worker. But if you want to get to the bottom of your colleague’s point of view, here are some things you can do to try to help the situation.

Handle the Situation Face-to-Face: If a disagreement happens over chat or email, don’t try to address the problem then. Instead, wait until you see the person or schedule a face-to-face meeting with them in a private area. To avoid the conversation being rushed, block off as much time as is needed for both of you to address the issue.

Although it might be tempting to solve a disagreement over chat, this won’t have the same effect. That’s because typed words carry no emotion, and your colleague might interpret something you said in a negative tone, putting them even more on the defensive. As most people know, it’s really easy to misinterpret someone’s thoughts, especially when there’s no emotion or facial expression behind them. Take ownership and talk in person – this alone can help resolve the problem.

Keep the Conflict Private: Having a strong relationship means having a rock solid foundation. With that being said, when you have a conflict with a colleague, venting to another co-worker (who isn’t your Human Resource (HR) representative or supervisor) has the potential to backfire. The reasons behind this are because, for one, there are eyes and ears everywhere. Gossiping about the conflict will also make you look unprofessional if anyone walks by you and hears you bad mouthing a co-worker. Secondly, if you start sharing the drama with other colleagues, the situation will get out-of-hand, putting the other person in an unfair position. Remember, at the end of the day, you all still have to work together for the well-being of the company.

Besides, who wants to be known at work for talking trash about co-workers?

Show Support: If you want to resolve conflict with a colleague – even if it’s not your fault – the first thing you want them to know is that you care. That’s right: defuse the situation by killing them with kindness. In the example above, your response to their outburst about not being appreciated at work should be, “I hear you. You don’t feel appreciated, and I’m sorry you feel that way. But I want you to know that you’re important to this team. So how can we help?” a response like this will immediately defuse the situation, and you’ll see the effects of agreeing with someone who’s felt ignored and unappreciated: They’ll take a deep breath, their attitude will change, and you’ll both have an opportunity to talk to one another.

According to Eastern Kentucky University, 26 percent of workers report they are often burned out or stressed by work. This means their outrage might not have anything to do with you personally.

But it can also be a sign that maybe they’re going through something in their personal life. Just like excuses reveal problems in personal relationships, they reveal the same in work relationships. Whatever the case may be, showing support could help ease the tension tremendously.

Know When to Involve a Third Party: As adults, we should all know how to handle disagreements with a co-worker if we aren’t seeing eye-to-eye. There are, however, exceptions to this theory that we should keep in mind and be aware of. If for example, you’re dealing with a situation that involves something like workplace harassment, then that’s a scenario where you should reach out to someone of a higher power. This isn’t the same as not seeing eye-to-eye about a specific project.

It’s also equally important to point out: if a colleague treats you unfairly based on your gender, race, or religious beliefs – to the point where you start to feel threatened, speak with Human Resources immediately. Their job is to deal with things like this, which means they’ll know what to do.

Unfortunately, not all problems at work can be solved, for multiple reasons. The person might have problems in their lives beyond your control or just simply enjoy making the workplace a difficult environment for everyone. However, by taking these suggestions into consideration, you can take the steps necessary to help minimize the chances of more conflict steering up.

Thanks for the read! Did I miss anything you felt was really important? What are some other strategies you’d recommend trying to help with conflict at work? Feel free to leave a comment below.


Herman Davis
Herman Davis
Herman Davis loves taking advantage of the sunny weather outside. If you can’t catch him online, you might be able to catch him out playing football with friends or cheering on the Denver Broncos. Follow him on Twitter below.

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  1. Great article Paul. In my case it was motivation. Early in my career with HHG I was so motivated by you I worked with a goal of never disappointing you. You were and continue to be great teacher and an instrumental influence in my career. To date, I refer to you as the smartest man I know. However, over the years in working for you I felt my personal accomplishments never could keep in stride with your expectations. There came a time when I continuely felt defeated and demotivated. That became cause for our separation. Please send my love to the family.