The phrase "We need to talk" is as uncomfortable to say as it is to hear. Few people enjoy delivering bad news, and even fewer people enjoy dealing with its aftermath. Whether you're breaking up with someone or telling your boss that you're quitting, the moments (or days) that follow are uncomfortable.
The awkward conversation is made even worse when you'll inevitably see the person you're talking to on a frequent basis. Unfortunately that's the situation many workers face when their colleagues are getting on their nerves and they can't take it anymore. A conversation needs to happen, but how do you go about it?
What's bugging you and does it matter?
Before you can tell your co-worker what is bothering you, you should make sure you know what specific action is bothering you. Otherwise you'll end up rambling about the many things you dislike about your colleague, from his bad haircut to the way he says "supposably." Deciding how to approach the issue comes down to one simple question: "Is his or her behavior affecting my ability to do my job?"
If the answer is yes, then you need to approach the topic from that perspective because it's the most relevant. If the answer is no and you're just annoyed, then you need to weigh the pros and cons of having the conversation so that you don't make the situation worse.
How to deal with the little things
The small annoyances can be taken care of with informal communication if you have a good relationship with the other person. This behavior might distract you at times but it's not going to seriously damage your productivity. A quick e-mail, a friendly comment over the cubicle wall or a brief conversation in the hallway can often be enough. For example:
- "Hey, Maria, I know you've got a great three-point shot, but could you not bounce that basketball against my wall? You're making the pictures of my cats fall off."
- "I will buy you an economy-sized box of mints if you promise to stop popping your gum, Luis."
- "If you're getting paid for every joke e-mail you forward, you must be a millionaire, Lydia."
Using small jokes or brief asides lets you air your grievance to the person without making a big to-do about the situation. After all, you're dealing with mildly annoying behavior, not a serious issue.
How to address serious issues
Remember that if you're dealing with a serious or potentially touchy issue, you have your supervisor and human resources department for support. Although you don't want to be seen as a tattletale who goes to the boss before discussing the situation like an adult, you also don't want to make an uncomfortable situation even more problematic. If an employee's behavior is violating workplace policy (or even the law), then you want to make sure you go through the proper channels and have documentation of your complaint.
For other serious issues that aren't as volatile, however, setting up a meeting with the person is the best option. Some of these issues might be:
- If the co-worker bugs you with incessant questions that aren't your responsibility to answer and you don't have the time to answer them anyway.
- If your colleague is shirking his duties and causing you to do more work.
- If your co-worker is acting like he or she is your boss.
You need to address these situations because they affect how well you can do your job, and your performance is important to actually keeping your job. But before, during and after the conversation, remember that your co-worker isn't bothering you or making your life harder on purpose. (If that were the case, then you'd be dealing with a very different situation.) If you can keep in mind that your colleague is probably unaware that he's bugging you, you won't get angry or defensive during the meeting.
- Call the meeting. Ask your colleague if you can talk privately for a minute. It should be via telephone or face to face, as message and tone can often get muddled via e-mail.
- Don't be a jerk. You might be blindsiding your colleague, so acting as if this is a situation that you've discussed before is unfair to him. Be polite.
- Acknowledge that the other person isn't a jerk. Your co-worker's not trying to bug you, so let him know you're aware of that.
- Explain why the behavior is a problem. Don't just say "stop doing this." Highlight the problem and then explain why it affects how well you can do your job. A reasonable person will quickly understand your point of view.
- Let the other person talk. Whether they have questions or have concerns they want to share, be fair and let them have their say.
- Keep the topic open for conversation. Tell your co-worker that you're glad you could both be honest. Then make it clear that you're open to discussing the situation again if he has questions. You're not the boss, so acting like an issue is closed to discussion just because you say it is doesn't make anyone want to treat you better.
Perhaps the most important thing to remind yourself is that this isn't a complicated medical procedure. Don't waste time panicking about the conversation. Talk to your co-worker with the same manners and respect you expect from others and you'll be surprised how smoothly it will go.
Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/abalderrama.