Can Talk To Cool Co-worker!

Question:

I started in my department about a 1 1/2yrs ago. About a month after I started, a co-worker, who was laid off from my company, returned. Upon her return she was not very friendly towards me; we tried to be civil, but it did not work. I approached her and asked if there was a problem. She responded, “If I have a problem, you will know.” Since that day, we ceased all communication between us.

Eight months later, I decided to approach her and asked her if she figured out why she did not want to speak to me–maybe you do not like me or maybe it was my West Indian accent. So she placed the blame on me saying I was the one that did not want to speak with her. So we started being civil. This lasted for 3 months of great conversation, laughs, sharing lunch etc. Then I noticed she ceased so once again I reached out and asked her if there was a problem lets discuss it. We did, and she said once again it was me that ceased communication. I expressed to her I had no problem with her. I was not trying to be her friend, but to co-exist amicably in the workplace. We spoke again.

For 2 weeks all was well, conversation, lunch etc. Then it ceased again, but now her behaviour is very aggressive towards me. She throws indirect verbal taunting towards me that I do pick up on. I decided I am not going to approach her to address what is the issue because she may blame it on me again BUT with her aggressive attitude I think she may become very confrontational and I am not about that.

The situation is making me uncomfortable and very emotional. What could be the problem? Do I approach her? How can I assert myself? Our office is like a dysfunctional family, and she is the youngest and most pampered by the managers and associates, but these same associates complain about her attitude behind her back. Please help if you can.

Signed,

Wondering


Answer:

Dear Wondering:

What would happen if you approached this as if you were a neutral observer of your office being asked to comment on the workplace environment? Try to imagine you are on a balcony looking down on your whole office, yourself included, as a totally objective person. Do you learn anything about how people relate and react to each other? In your situation, it is notable that each time you approached your co-worker about her ceasing communication with you, she claimed it was you who had stopped first. Perception is such a strong factor in any conflict dynamic. I am curious if you have equal power and status on the job with her or did she feel some territory issues when she returned after being laid off and was introduced to you as a co-worker. Everyone’s actions are motivated by some emotion. You have been able to talk to her well in the past, and maybe it will continue to take some effort to really try to get to the bottom of this pattern of her on and off again behavior. However, if you feel that she is being verbally aggressive toward you, it would be important to calmly state how you feel when she takes that tone. She may not be aware of her tone of voice, or how it affects you. It is difficult to be assertive but to strongly and calmly say that what upsets you about her behavior and you would prefer instead is very important to keeping professional boundaries.

Put your faith in communication. We cannot cross over the WEGO bridge of misunderstanding without it.

Ian Heisey