Confronting Conflict: Dealing with an abrasive colleague

by epi on March 29, 2012

Q: I have a colleague in another department who is extremely pushy and rude toward me.  Not only can she be very short and abrasive, but I’m afraid she’s not even aware that she’s talking down to me.  We work together — I do not work for her.  How can I address this problem of disrespect before it gets worse?

A: Clearly, doing nothing isn’t going to help — and you can’t try avoiding her, either, since you have to work together.  That leaves only one option: talk to her.  The trick is to do this in a way that resolves the situation and doesn’t degenerate into a shouting match.  Ask to speak with your colleague alone.  Set a time outside the hours when you normally work together, so the problematic behavior won’t be occurring while you’re trying to raise the subject with her.  When you talk, don’t be accusatory.  Instead, frame your discussion in terms of building a stronger relationship: “Jane, I asked to speak to you because something seems to be happening that makes me very concerned.  I feel you’ve been a little short with me, and it’s making me focus on whatever might be wrong, rather than getting my work done with you.  Is there a problem that we can address together?”

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Alicia March 29, 2012 at 8:12 am

Some people are more sensative and some people more blunt. You say you think she does not even realize it. That may be the case. Next time it happens stop in the moment otherwise she may not know for sure what behavior is bother you and say “Wow that seemed very abrasive! I know you are not trying to hurt my feeling but when you say things like that it comes across rather abrupt and dismissive.”
She very likely does not realize it is hurting your feelings and is being percieved in this way.

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Zakafury March 29, 2012 at 9:02 am

I agree with Alicia, the EPI response does not take advantage of immediacy. Personally, I would avoid the word “abrasive,” which I associate with a character trait, rather than with specific behaviors.

If there are other coworkers around, limit your comments to something assertive but not judgmental. “Jenna, I’m just as familiar with the project as you are.” Then, have that private discussion about how you don’t like being talked down to.

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Jerry March 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm

As someone who has been accused of of being “short” and “abrasive” I would offer that you mirror her communication style. She’s probably appreciate a more direct approach — I know that I do.

If and when you decide to talk to her, be aware that she may think you’re just oversensitive and call you on it. It will help your position if others feel the same way that you do. (If not, you’re in for a serious problem, particularly if you don’t like confrontation.)

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Jody March 30, 2012 at 10:01 am

Speaking here as somebody who has been in your position, here’s what I’d suggest.

First, speak to her privately. She may not realize how abrasive she is. She might accuse you of being oversensitive, and probably won’t thank you, but she might modify her behavior — which would get you to where you want to be, right?

Second, if the private talk doesn’t work, call her out on her behavior the next time she does it, even if it’s in public. You’ve given her a fair chance to modify her behavior and she hasn’t.

Third, (if the first two don’t work), go to your HR person. Maybe he/she will have suggestions. It’s also possible that others have complained about this coworker and your input will be additional information.

Do not, as Jerry says mirror her behavior. That just brings you down to her level and makes the situation a potential catfight. The argument then becomes the focus, not the work you’re trying to get done.

You say you work together, but can you avoid her if none of the works out? I was able to work on different projects than my abrasive coworker did, and we were somehow able to maintain a truce.

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