What to do when a co-worker makes you miserable

It’s counterintuitive, but you need to get to know that person better. You don’t need to be friends — just understand them better.

Some time ago, I read a column in the New York Times called “Workologist.” Readers wrote in questions about work problems. One week, a reader described a co-worker as “narcissistic and selfish.” He tried confrontation, but when that didn’t work, he attempted to make friends with her. She didn’t respond well. Frustrated, he finally went to her boss — no help there either. He’s ready to look for another job but knew it wouldn’t be easy, and wanted to know what to do.

Unfortunately, this experience is not uncommon. We don’t get to choose our co-workers or our managers. Our work environment, like a trip to the supermarket, is filled with members of the general public. Sometimes, we get lucky, and we’re happy with all of our colleagues. But then, the person who works next to you gets promoted, and his replacement is your worst nightmare. It’s the luck of the draw. But your peace and happiness at work are significantly impacted by this good or bad fortune.

A difficult co-worker is one problem. But suppose you feel that your boss is a cousin of Darth Vader. That can be even worse. The wonderful manager that hired you is replaced next week by the supervisor from hell. These are the challenges we all face from time to time in our work lives.

Most of us worker bees spend eight hours a day or more at work. A difficult or tension-filled relationship with a co-worker or manager is stressful and can be a cause of real unhappiness.

Some years ago, I had a strained relationship with one of my staff members (these problems go in both directions). She made it clear that she didn’t care for me. One day we had a disagreement and she yelled at me “I just don’t respect you!” I have to admit I was angry. I took a deep breath and replied in an even voice, “Really, I don’t want to fight with you. I just want to get along better with you.” The tension broke, and we had a heart-to-heart discussion about what each of us could do to find more harmony. I can’t say that we ever became best buddies, but we both did find ways of getting along better.

So, what can you do when you don’t like a co-worker?

First, try to understand this person better. What’s her job? What pressures does he have? How does he react to frustration and ambiguity (triggers for a lot of bad behavior)? What do you observe about her? All too often we draw conclusions about the other person (e.g., He is selfish) much too quickly. What are alternative explanations for the behavior that we observe? What stressors are going on in this person’s life outside of work?

Get to know the other person. This is counterintuitive. If I have trouble with someone, I frequently invite them out for lunch. All too often, we avoid people we don’t like. This doesn’t help us find common ground.

Ask yourself: What can I do to get along better with my co-worker? Commonly, we want the other person to change. Nice thought, but it’s far better to ask yourself what you might do differently. This question, although difficult to consider, may open up new possibilities.

Find a way to talk to the person. I know many of us avoid conflict. But this is a bad idea when it comes to a stressful relationship at work (or at home). Focus on specific behaviors that are challenging. Rehearse your conversation with a friend. Be positive, clear and express optimism that your relationship can improve.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.

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