Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
Relationships with coworkers can be tough to navigate. These are people who you spend an huge amount of time with, but - unlike most other people you spend a lot of time around - you don't usually get to pick who they are. And they might not be the people you'd have chosen to surround yourself with, if you did get to choose. Moreover, you need to maintain decent relations with coworkers because of work, which means that you can't always be as candid as you might be in other relationships. And you also have to consider internal politics, power dynamics, and hierarchy in a way that can make the whole thing feel tremendously fraught.
That's especially problematic when you have to raise a topic that feels ripe for conflict or tension - like asking someone to stop ignoring your emails or talking to a coworker who isn't pulling her weight on a shared project.
But with the right approach, you can have successful conversations about sensitive topics, even difficult coworkers. In working on my new book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, I realized there are some key approaches that will make most tough conversations with coworkers go more smoothly.
1. Use the same tone you would use to raise any other work-related problem. Often when people are worried about how a conversation will go, their tone reflects that. They sound hesitant or worried, or they're overly delicate in how they approach the topic. But coworkers will often take their cues from you, and that that approach is more likely to make the person tense up, get defensive, or assume that the conversation has to be a big deal. Instead, try using the same tone you'd use to discuss a less charged work-related issue. Imagine the tone you'd use to say, for example, "Hey, I can't figure out how to get this software to work. Any chance you can help me?" If your tone is collaborative and conveys "here's a work problem that I'm hoping we can solve together,' your coworker is more likely to respond in kind.
2. Sometimes being self-deprecating can make things easier. If you're worried your coworker will bristle if you ask her to change something she's doing that's bothering you, sometimes you can effectively reframe it as "this is just a weird thing about me." For example, if you want to ask a coworker to be stop loudly popping her chewing gum, you could say, "Hey, can you stop popping your gum? It's distracting." But that may or may not go over well, especially if the coworker isn't especially easy to get along with. You might get better results if you instead say something like, "I'm sorry, I have a weird sensitivity to the sound of gum popping - any chance you can try not to pop it?" The idea is "it's not you, it's me" - which while not always strictly accurate, sometimes get you the results you want without accompanying awkwardness. And if it doesn't work, you can always take a firmer approach from there.
That said, this tactic makes sense in some situations and not in others. It wouldn't make sense to be self-deprecating when, for example, you're talking to someone about a serious work problem or asking someone not to make racist remarks.
3. Try to make things normal afterwards. If things feel a little awkward or strained after you have a difficult conversation with a coworker, look for an opportunity soon afterwards to interact in a more pleasant, lower-stakes way. If you can quickly follow up an awkward conversation with a more normal conversation on another topic, you can signal that you're not upset and that there needn't be any lingering tension.
After an awkward or difficult conversation, try to find an opportunity soon afterwards to have a normal conversation with the person about something else. That will reinforce that you're not upset and hopefully will help to reset the dynamic so that there's not lingering tension.