Effective Communication

7 Pain–Free Ways to Defuse Conflict With An Obnoxious Coworker

annoying colleague

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone working in a corporate environment who hasn’t been faced with an annoying or difficult coworker.

No matter what their issues—maybe they keep interrupting you when your door is closed, talk too loudly on the phone or blame their mistakes on others–they can make your work life miserable, depending how often you have to deal with them. Rather than waking up every day dreading work, there are ways to make things better and more bearable.

Although you aren’t going to be able to change or control someone else’s behavior, you can change and control your own. By modifying the ways you respond and interact with a difficult coworker you can make life at the office better for yourself and possibly, everyone else too.

Here are some ways to defuse conflict and make a difficult coworker easier to handle:

  • Listen.

Possibly the most effective way to deal with anyone being difficult or unreasonable–coworker or not–is to give them your ear. Often all they want is for their opinions to be acknowledged. Try to stay focused on what they are saying, not on all the ways in which you disagree with them or what you want to say. Listen with an attitude of curiosity and a willingness to learn something, even if what you’re learning is that you probably have little common ground with this coworker.

  • Be respectful, not angry.

One sure-fire way to escalate the situation is to meet your coworker’s anger or frustration by being defensive, angry or contemptuous of them.  Strive instead to be professional and respectful. You’ll show your own dignity in the process.  Keep in mind that you don’t know what may be going on in this person’s life professionally or personally. Sometimes people behave unreasonably when they are feeling vulnerable or afraid.

  • Compromise.

Whatever the issue, there is probably some step or steps—no matter how small—that you can take to make this person feel validated and heard.

  • Be direct but don’t embarrass them.

Someone who is annoying or obnoxious rarely sees their behavior as such, they are just being themselves, after all.  And it’s very likely that up until this point no one has had the desire to call them out for it. Being direct is the best approach, because you have as much right to a positive and productive work environment as they do. Don’t start a conversation on the defensive, but in a way that gives them the chance to save face. For example, “I know it’s been a really stressful time for all of us because of this project, but I am having trouble focusing because of personal phone calls. Maybe we could take our personal calls in the conference room instead of here in the work area?”

  • Keep it all business.

When you approach your coworker, give a business reason for your problem, don’t make it about them personally. You need uninterrupted time to focus to meet a deadline or you don’t want clients on the phone to feel you are distracted or not listening to them.

  • Avoid gossip.

Gossiping with others about a difficult coworker will only foment the problem. Before you know it, that person’s obnoxious behavior will be all anyone wants to talk about. Find someone outside of work instead—a friend, spouse or family member—and then you can vent to your heart’s content.

  • Don’t hand them all the power.

If you let this coworker cause you to dread the office, you’ve handed them an awful lot of power over your work life. Instead, stay focused on doing the work you enjoy and doing it well. Take whatever steps you can to make your own life at the office better, whether that’s putting up a sign on your door that says “No interruptions please,” or asking the office manager if it’s possible to switch offices.

About the Author

Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist who writes about entrepreneurship, technology, small businesses and the workplace. She was a career columnist for the New York Times and is a regular contributor to the paper's small business section.