By Renée Evenson
Basic Rules to Keep in Mind When Confronting a Co-worker
When confronting a co-worker about a problem, it’s always best to focus on the situation rather than on the person. Your message will be better received if it shows that you viewed the situation from other perspectives, states how the offending behavior made you feel, and demonstrates a willingness to remain open. Keeping a relaxed and open demeanor, matching your facial expressions to the conversation, and speaking calmly and confidently can further increase your ability to make your feelings known and successfully handle any problem. This approach will enable you to resolve conflicts effectively and maintain strong, supportive relationships with your co-workers.
Before learning how to handle the specific behavior of gossiping, here are some basic rules to remember when attempting to resolve a conflict:
- Always remain calm, no matter how the other person speaks to you
- Always treat others with respect
- Don’t overreact
- Take a wait-and-see approach whenever possible
- Get a neutral person’s perspective on the situation if you feel it’ll help
- Always speak in specifics and be prepared to share examples
- Don’t try to change people; focus only on changing the behavior
- Avoid complaining about people to others
- Not every situation needs to be addressed, even if you feel confident that you know how to effectively resolve conflict
- Ignoring a situation may sometimes be your best option, particularly if it’s the result of an annoying habit you can learn to ignore
- Always give the person the chance to make things right; never go over someone’s head without speaking to the involved person directly
- If the situation can’t be resolved after your resolution conversation, then and only then refer the matter to your boss
- If the conversation heats up or you feel threatened, end the discussion and get someone else to mediate
A Sample Scenario
Nick works in an office that employs over 100 employees. He tries to mind his own business and stay away from the grapevine chatter. He prides himself on being congenial to all of his co-workers, but of all the employees in the office, he wishes Brian didn’t occupy the cubicle next to his. Nick has grown tired of listening to Brian gossip about the goings on in—and out of—the office. He’s tried to ignore him and has even pretended to be on calls whenever Brian pokes his head in his cubicle, but Brian somehow manages to corner him to share the latest news. Nick’s aggravation turned to anger when Brian couldn’t wait to say that someone told him that one of their co-workers was in big trouble and might get suspended for messing up an important report. Nick doesn’t want to listen to gossip, and he really doesn’t want to hear negative hearsay about a co-worker he likes and respects. Nick walked away without defending the co-worker, but was sorry he didn’t speak up because he knew that it wouldn’t be long before Brian shared the next tidbit.
Like Brian, some people just like to gossip. They can’t wait to share the latest news, even when it’s hearsay and may not be accurate. They want to be part of the grapevine, the dispensers of information, the bearers of good—and bad—facts, rumors, and innuendos. Even if you like to hear gossip or inadvertently get caught up in the office grapevine, in the long run it’s best to not involve yourself in this useless blather. It’s also best not to repeat gossip you’ve heard. Someone might repeat something you said about another person that gets back to that person and accuse you of instigating nasty rumors. Or, another person can take something that you said out of context, and you’ll find yourself needing to defend yourself. If any of these events occur, your coworkers and boss will lose trust in you.
Just ignore the banter. Don’t comment or make facial gestures that communicate your feelings. Remain calm, keep a passive facial expression, and if someone asks your opinion or goads you into agreeing, you can say: “I don’t know enough about the situation to comment.” By remaining neutral, you’ll let others know that you’re not into gossip. If someone continuously gossips to you, as in Nick’s case, it’s probably best to ignore the person. The gossipmonger is looking for a response. So don’t provide one. Don’t raise your eyebrows or look shocked. By remaining unresponsive, the gossipmonger may get the hint and take the gossip elsewhere.
A 5-Step Plan
Nick knew that unless he spoke up, Brian wasn’t going to stop gossiping. He decided to speak to Brian and tell him he didn’t want to hear any more bad news about their coworkers and other office chatter.
Step 1: Think First
Nick figured that nothing he could say would change Brian’s behavior. His goal in speaking up was twofold: he wanted to directly address the rumor involving the co-worker whom Brian said was in hot water, and he wanted to make sure Brian understood that going forward he didn’t want to listen to any gossip. Nick played out the conversation in his mind, focusing on how it affected him and how the conversation might affect Brian.
Step 2: Gain a Better Understanding
When Brian poked his head in Nick’s cubicle later that day to provide an update on the co-worker, Nick spoke up. “Brian, come in and sit down. I’d like to talk to you about something.”
Brian looked excited as he sat down, ready to spill all the details. “You wouldn’t believe what.…”
Nick interrupted him and said, “Look, Brian, I didn’t ask you in to tell me all the dirty details. I like John a lot, and it bothered me when you told me he was in trouble. (“I” phrase) In fact, I really don’t like hearing any office gossip. I’m here to do my job. When you told me about him it bothered me and threw me off when I tried to refocus on my work.” (“I” phrase)
“I’m only repeating what I heard about John. It’s not like I’m making this stuff up. Just want to keep you up to speed, Bro.”
Step 3: Define the Problem
Nick nodded, kept a neutral facial expression, and continued. “So what you’re saying is that you’re repeating things you hear to keep me informed, whether or not the information has been verified. And you’re telling me whether or not I’m in the middle of completing an important project.”
“Well, when you put it like that, no I don’t verify everything. I figure if someone tells me something, it’s true. And I didn’t realize that I threw you off.”
Nick added: “So you do you understand my position. You understand how hearing unwanted gossip can interfere with me getting back into the work mode?”
“Well, I hadn’t thought about that, but I guess so,” Brian said.
Step 4: Offer Your Best Solution
Nick leaned forward and said: “I can appreciate that you want to keep me informed about what’s going on. (understanding) But Brian, as I said, I really don’t want to know everyone else’s business. I’d prefer if you didn’t tell me anything about anyone in the office. I’d rather talk about other things or else just sit here and do my job.” (compromise)
“Well, if you don’t want to hear any office news and you’re so busy working maybe, I just shouldn’t talk to you at all,” Brian countered.
Nick had prepared himself for that type of defensive response. “Brian, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way. I like you. I enjoy working with you. I like talking to you. But I just don’t like hearing rumors and gossip about anyone. As long as we can keep our conversations on other topics, I’d appreciate that. It will help keep my head clear for work, too.” (compromise)
Step 5: Agree on the Resolution
“Well, sure,” Brian said. “I can live with that.”
Nick smiled and said: “Great. (resolution) I’ll enjoy our conversations a lot more when they don’t involve our co-workers.” (reconciliation)
Why This Works
Nick’s purpose for having the conversation wasn’t to change Brian’s behavior. It was merely to change the topic of their conversations to avoid gossip. He clearly stated how hearing the rumor about the co-worker had made him feel. He also explained that he didn’t want to listen to gossip of any kind because it affected his ability to complete his work. When Brian became defensive, Nick was prepared. So, he offered an assurance and was able to turn the conversation around. Nick ended their interaction by reiterating that he’ll enjoy their conversations more when they don’t involve gossip. When Brian reaffirmed that he understood the dialogue ended on a positive note.
Applying the Approach
Apply the following principles when dealing with a gossipmonger:
- Try ignoring the gossip. Remain neutral and don’t offer your opinion. Keep a passive facial expression and don’t use gestures that indicate agreement or surprise.
- If someone asks for your opinion, tell the person you’d rather not comment.
- If the gossipmonger is starting to get to you and is affecting your work, you need to speak up.
- Tell the person that you don’t care to listen to any gossip and explain how it affects your work.
- Get the person to agree with how you defined the problem. Then offer a compromise.
- Gain agreement that the person will leave you out of the loop.
- If you find that listening to grapevine news and other gossip continues to be bothersome when you’re with a group, it may be time to avoid the group.
- Consider this: If you hang with people who gossip, others are going to assume you’re just like them.
© 2014 Renée Evenson. All rights reserved.
This article was excerpted and adapted from Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People, by Renée Evenson. Used with permission of the publisher, AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.
To increase your interpersonal skills, consider these AMA seminars:
Responding to Conflict: Strategies for Improved Communication
How to Communicate with Diplomacy, Tact and Credibility
About the Author(s)
Renée Evenson is a small-business consultant specializing in workplace communication and conflict-resolution strategies. Her previous books include Powerful Phrases for Effective Customer Service and Customer Service Training 101.