When you work with people, you’re going to experience conflict every now and then. If your practice team is functional, you’ll solve any problems quickly and carry on working normally. However, even if you work on a phenomenal team, there’s inevitably one colleague who grates on your nerves. This person might undermine you in team meetings, shaft you when scheduling hours, or simply laugh in a way that makes you cringe.
Though you might enjoy your day more when you don’t talk to this person, staying silent isn’t the way to deal with the situation, says Kerry Patterson, a communication expert and co-author of Crucial Conversations. “Silence turns into anger and once you do decide to say something, it becomes an attack,” he says. “The retaliation becomes worse than the original act.”
People often don’t speak up at work because they worry that their own jobs could be in jeopardy if they’re pegged as a complainer, Patterson says. But, in the veterinary field where teamwork is directly related to patients’ level of care, interpersonal conflict can be deadly if not dealt with.
In fact, 84 percent of healthcare professionals regularly witness co-workers taking shortcuts that could be dangerous to patients, according to Silence Kills: The Seven Crucial Conversations for Healthcare, a recent study Patterson conducted. Yet less than 10 percent are willing to speak up and address the issue with co-workers.
The reason you’re uncomfortable around a specific co-worker is hopefully less troubling than shoddy patient care. But even harboring grudges for lesser reasons poses potential problems. If you can’t stand a co-worker, that sour relationship is bound to affect some aspect of your job.
The solution: Engage in a conversation to address any issues that bother you. “You have to find common ground,” says Cindy L. Adams, PhD, MSW, an associate professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “After all, you’re both working in the same environment, so you have common goals.” To that end, here are eight strategies for talking to co-workers you can’t stand—so you can move beyond your differences.
1. Use “I” statements. You can’t speak from anyone’s perspective but your own, so avoid saying things like, “You don’t seem to care how you treat me.” Instead, use phrases such as, “I felt humiliated when you did this,” or, “I’m concerned about that.” What’s more, these types of sentences are harder for your co-worker to deny. Once you’ve laid bare your issues, give the other person a chance to do the same, Adams says. “You need to ask questions about what’s going on with the other person,” she says. “Doing so neutralizes the conversation.”
2. Stay away from the IRS. No, don’t skip your taxes. Instead, Adams says you must avoid what’s referred to in conflict resolution as the IRS: interruptions, repetition, and stereotyping. “If these things occur, it means people aren’t feeling listened to,” Adams says. A good way to reassure your co-worker, says Adams, is to simply reply, “I hear what you’re saying,” or “You’re obviously frustrated with me as well,” after they’ve shared their side of the story. “It doesn’t mean you agree with them, but at least you’re hearing them out,” she says.
3. Start and end with a compliment. Dr. Linnda Durré, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of Surviving the Toxic Workplace, suggests using what she calls the sandwich technique. First, say something nice about the person such as, “I know you care about this practice.” Then follow up with the negative feedback: “I feel like you often dismiss me in front of the veterinarians.” Then end on another positive note: “I’d like to resolve this because my working relationship with you is important to me.” Also, be sure to use the word and rather than but. And makes anything in the sentence true. For example, “I love my dog and he drives me crazy.” This allows the annoyance to co-exist with the good feelings. On the other hand, saying but negates any positive sentiment that precedes it. “I love my dog, but he drives me crazy.” The good stuff just isn’t as believable.
4. Keep fiction out of it. If you let problems fester, it’s easy to conjure up pre-conceived notions about why a co-worker has wronged you. These unproven ideas make you much more likely to enter into any conversation with your proverbial guns blazing. “You have to say to yourself, ‘I don’t know why they did what they did,’ and just go in and talk to them,” says Patterson. “Focus on the facts. Don’t tell yourself an ugly story.” After all, it might not even be true.
5. Describe behaviors. Maybe the person reprimanded you in front of a client or called your skills into question in the exam room. Whatever it was, you need to say exactly what bothered you using the most recent example you can recall. Rather than saying, “You made me look dumb in there,” get specific. Try something like this: “I felt attacked when you said, ‘Are you sure you can give the vaccine?’ in front of the client. That undermines my credibility. Please talk to me about any concerns you have before we’re in the room with clients.” Durré says, “If you call them on what they’re doing, they know they can’t keep getting away with it.” Plus, you’ve given the person a tangible action he or she can change rather than just saying something that could be construed as an emotional outburst or personal attack.
6. Seek a solution. “You want to get to a point that’s mutually agreeable to both parties without either party feeling like they’ve rolled over,” Adams says. After you’ve identified the problem, tell the person that you’d like to resolve it so you both end up satisfied. Once you’ve ironed out a solution, agree to follow up on it.
7. Seek an objective party. If the two of you can’t come to an agreement on your own, it might be time to enlist the help of the practice owner or manager who has less emotional attachment to the problem. Whatever you do, don’t leave the issue unresolved, Adams says. “Avoiding each other by scheduling yourself on different shifts just sets up a culture of unresolved conflicts,” she says.
8. Accept that there are some people you just don’t like. Of course, after all this if you fall into the category of someone who dislikes a team member because of the way they smile, then you’re in a different situation. Realize that you don’t have to be friends with all your co-workers, but you do need to be friendly. And you do need to work together. “You have a job to do, so you need to put on your game face for eight hours,” Durré says. Think about your patients and how much they need your full attention. Also focus on the aspects of your job that you love—the things that make you want to come to work each day. And if that doesn’t work? “Get out and find a job with people you really do like,” Durré says. “You don’t have to put up with insanity.”