Career Advice, Watercooler

7 Things To Gut-Check Before Confronting A Coworker

Perhaps some of the best career advice was given by rapper Ice Cube back in 1992/93 when he grabbed the mic and said, “Check yourself before your wreck yourself.”

While Ice Cube’s second hit single from his third solo album was talking about confrontations in a different setting, the message — as explained by UrbanDictionary.com — remains the same: you should take a step back and examine your emotions before making a rash decision. At work, it’s imperative that you not let your emotions or the heat of the moment get the better of you, whether in a conversation with a coworker and especially when dealing with a superior.

After all, a confrontation need not be aggressive or a cunning attack move. It is simply a conversation where concerns are addressed and where each party should be calm, empathetic, and have a mutual interest in resolving the situation. Sure, a tiny bit of frustration or hostility is unavoidable, but a skosh is all you need.

“There comes a time when the only way forward, the only way to resolve the issues you’ve been dealing with and stop the emotional and mental energy that is being exhausted is to confront the situation head-on… to have the confrontation… to have the conversation,” says career expert Brandon Smith.

But before asking your colleague “to talk about a few things,” take Ice Cube’s advice and “check yourself”.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself before confronting a coworker:

1. Are you prepared to do this yourself, without your boss’s help?
Having a serious conversation with a colleague about an issue should be handled one-on-one unless you’ve already tried that and it’s gone awry. You should prepare for the confrontation like any other meeting, thinking through all possibilities and not relying on a boss or manager to mediate. “Bosses do not like to step in. And frankly, when bosses do step in, they often have their own agenda, which may be to get this fixed and done with quickly,” says Jeanne Brett, director of the Dispute Resolution Research Center at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. If you’re looking for a solution, you have to handle it mano a mano, or colleague-to-colleague.

2. Do you believe deep down that your co-worker is a good person?
This is a vital question to ask yourself because it gets to the root of whether the conflict may be resolved or whether you should prepare to be disappointed. When you think of the colleague, do you think of them getting along with other coworkers, being jovial around the office, doing kind things around the workplace or receiving critical feedback well? If you believe that the coworker you’d like to confront is a good person, you have a better chance of calmly speaking with them about your concerns and receiving a warm reception.

3. Are you willing to be vulnerable and receive feedback?
Just because you want to confront a colleague does not mean that they will simply remain silent and not have a rebuttal or alternate opinion. Prepare yourself to see their side of things and to receive feedback from them that may surprise you.

4. Does your short- or long-term success rely on addressing this problem?
In the heat of the moment, you may be running on adrenaline and frustration. But you must stop and ask yourself how vital it is to the work you do that you confront this person. “Maybe after reflecting for a day, you’ll decide that whatever is going on isn’t really a problem for you,” says Doug Kalish, author of self-assessment eBooks Dougsguides. “In that case, forget about it. If it is a problem – you need to do something about it. No problem in the history of human relations was ever resolved by being ignored.”

5. Is this person a direct report or a boss?
If the answer is yes, extra precautions should be taken and preparations made. If the person is a direct report and you are their manager, be sure to avoid inflammatory remarks and extreme statements like “you always…” Instead, use this both as a time to confront your subordinate and teach them as well. Listen to his or her position then emphasize that the two of you must come to a mutual agreement about your respective roles. If the conversation reveals that both of you must make changes, then come to an agreement on how those changes will be made. Lastly, schedule a time to meet again as a check-in to assess how things are going, and if needed schedule regular one-on-one meetings to improve the relationship.

If you need to confront your boss, clinical psychologist Marilyn Puder-York, PhD, says that while stressful, this is feasible. “Assuming your boss generally behaves in a fairly reasonable manner, and that his/her difficult behavior seems to be a result of stress overload rather than his/her character, chances are good that the behavior can be modified. If your boss’s behavior seems to reflect a chronically hostile, abusive style of interacting regardless of the amount of stress in the worksite, the chances are less positive that the behavior can change. In fact, you may want to consider seeking counsel from a trusted mentor or human resources professional to evaluate your options.”

6. How important is it to you and the organization to improve the situation?
In some situations, your other colleagues know about the conflict; they either have heard about it in the break room or they sensed something was off based on the last team meeting. It gets tricky when your conflict with a colleague has begun to be noticed and this makes it imperative that you improve the situation. If you determine that this is an important issue to resolve and you see that it’s affecting your reputation at work or your ability to perform, then the problem is certainly serious enough to escalate to a confrontation or sit-down discussion.

7. Is the issue affecting your ability to concentrate or how you feel about going to work every day?
According to Harvard Business Review, half of workers say they are treated rudely at their job at least once a week. From gossiping to backstabbing, these aren’t just issues that’ll resolve themselves — they require addressing because your work is suffering. These stressful situations can affect your performance, yes, but they can also take a mental and physical toll on you as well. This is a key question to ask yourself, especially if the conflict is making you consider putting in your two-weeks’ notice.

Once you’ve thought through each of the above questions, you’re ready to get your game plan together. Gather the facts as you see them, practice making “I” statements to personalize the confrontation and make it easier for someone to empathize, and then set a time to meet with the colleague. You are prepared and ready. Remember to be open to feedback and to remain professional. Good luck!

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