Difficult work relationships are one of the most common reasons people are unhappy at work or looking to move on to new jobs. They may endure months or years of uncomfortable and stressful encounters – bosses who micromanage, direct reports who have bad attitudes, or colleagues who constantly drop the ball and look for them to clean up the mess.

Consider this all-too-common scenario of a director describing the difficult relationship she has with her manager – “I feel as if I can do nothing right,” she says. “He asks me to take on a project, we agree on an approach, and I work long hours to get it done. But when we sit down to go over what I have done, in every case, he picks it apart, questions every point, and even contradicts things he said he wanted at the beginning! I then have to redo everything and hope that he won’t change his mind again. I can’t keep working like this.” Or this manager who has a difficult team member – “If I approach her, I always feel like I am bothering her. I ask her to do something and she lets out a big sigh, practically rolls her eyes, and barely acknowledges me. I’d rather just get someone else to do it.”

In almost all situations involving difficult work relationships, the problem is exacerbated by a lack of communication. Until you are willing to have the tough conversations and be clear and honest about what is going on, what you are feeling, and how the other person’s behavior is impacting you and the situation, it is unlikely that things will change. In fact, they will probably just get worse, or at some point, may explode when you reach a breaking point.

When I coach clients in these types of situations, I often ask five questions to move them forward:

  1. What is the impact of this current situation on you? On the larger team/department/organization?
  2. What’s in it for you (and for the other person) to resolve this?
  3. What do you need from this person?
  4. What does this person need to know?
  5. And then the most important question: When can you have a conversation to share this?

Our exchange usually comes to a screeching halt with the last question. I’ll often hear a host of reasons why they cannot have the conversation – “It’s not a good time,” “They won’t listen,” “I wouldn’t know what to say,” or “I can’t tell them that!” – or all of the disastrous consequences that would come from having the conversation – “I’ll be labeled as difficult,” “He (or she) will be angry with me,” “They will quit,” “I will get fired,” and on and on. Ultimately, my clients usually come to the realization that they are making a choice to put up with a difficult work situation, and that they can make a different choice to do something about it rather than just complain and suffer through.

Opening the door to have a conversation is an important first step in resolving a conflict or improving a difficult work relationship. It’s important to find the right moment for the conversation, create the right environment for the conversation, and to be willing to truly hear the other person’s perspective as well. That first conversation then makes it possible to have the next conversation on the road to a better and more satisfying relationship for everyone.

What conversations do you need to have at work that you are avoiding?

Answer the five questions above and take the first step to have a conversation.

Tell us how you have turned around a difficult work relationship. We’d love to hear.

If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it in our book, The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes To Being the Leader You Want To Be, available on Amazon.

For support in dealing with difficult work relationships, contact Robyn at rmcleod@chatsworthconsulting.com.

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