How to Work With a Coworker You Can’t Stand

Friction with your coworkers is pretty normal, but that doesn't mean it can't be fixed.

You might be working your dream career. That doesn’t mean all your coworkers are just as dreamy.

Stick around the same folks for 8-plus hours a day, and some of them are bound to grind your gears.

Whether it has led to a full-blown workplace conflict or just makes you grit your teeth every time you’re in the same room, working with folks you don’t vibe with is no fun.

It’s also… pretty normal.

A survey of 2,000 adults by Four Loko (yeah, the alcohol company) found that 62 percent of office workers try to avoid certain people at their holiday party.

But much more scientific studies have found links between how well you get along with your coworkers and your health. The more you identify with your coworkers, the healthier you are.

So there’s good reason to want to turn things around. And it’s not impossible, either.

1. Figure out what’s bothering you

This might seem counter-intuitive. But figuring out what annoys you about that coworker can help you figure out what your plan of action will be.

Do you need to ask for something? Or do you need to set a boundary?

Two coworkers discuss near a computer. REWIRE PBS Work coworkerCredit: Adobe
If you’re feeling disrespected, it’s OK to bring it up in a way that is thoughtful and cordial.

“For instance, do they constantly interrupt you or talk over you? Do they try to chat when it’s obvious you’re busy?” said Ashleigh Edelstein, an Austin, Texas-based psychotherapist.

“Getting to the root of your concerns helps guide you toward solutions. This could mean requesting they stop interrupting you or just limiting contact as much as possible.”

Once you figure out what’s bothering you, it’s still important to keep your emotions in check. You are at work, after all, and it’s part of being professional.

Edelstein recommends taking a deep breath if you’re starting to feel yourself getting irritated by a coworker. Then figure out how you best disengage from the situation.

Maybe you need some fresh air. Maybe you need to take a short walk. Whatever it takes for you to cool down and come back with a clear head.

2. Let yourself detach a bit

No matter what, this person shouldn’t be taking up more space in your brain than they deserve.

That doesn’t mean you don’t care about your workplace or your coworkers. It just means guarding your thoughts a bit so this person is not ruining every Sunday evening.

If they are, it’s just gonna make the work days worse.

“Don’t spend time anticipating an interaction with them at work or in a meeting,” said Joanne Ketch, a psychotherapist in Katy, Texas.

“This gives them too much power, rents space in your brain and literally trains your brain to search for and find only the evidence that they will, in fact, do and say the things that really bother you.”

If you do devote some brain time to them, Ketch says, it might be helpful to consider the things they do well. You don’t have to tell them this, of course, but it might help you to not only think about the negatives.

3. Confront them if you need to

If you just can’t shake your resentment, especially if they’re doing something that makes you feel disrespected, it’s OK to bring it up in a way that is thoughtful and cordial.

They might not even realize what they’re doing.

Ellen Mullarkey said this happened early in her career. She’s now vice president of business development at Messina Staffing.

There was a man in her office who she thought never listened to what she had to say. And as the months went by, her resentment grew.

“When I finally reached my breaking point, I confronted him about it. I was like, ‘Why don’t you ever listen to my ideas? What is that about?’” she said.

“His face turned beet red, and I could tell he wasn’t expecting this type of reaction from me. He apologized and told me that it wasn’t intentional at all. He said that he really appreciated my ideas and that he felt our meetings were very productive.”

Mullarkey said she saw a change in him from then on. He tried harder to hold back whenever he felt the need to interrupt.

They still had different communication styles. That part didn’t change. But confronting him about it meant they were able to work together from then on.

4. Consider that you might have your own work to do

This might be hard to hear. But the reason someone might be annoying you might be due to more complex reasons from your past.

“It’s not uncommon for the persons who make us feel strongly to be triggering something bigger, something else, something from the past,” Ketch said. “Jane or Jon may still end up being a jerk, but it’s worth your time to unpack intense emotions.”

In other cases, you might be using some of what psychotherapists call common thinking errors, that make you believe things are worse than they are.

Maybe you’re filtering out the positive. Maybe you’re seeing things as too black-and-white.

Maybe you’re assuming what they’re thinking. Or you’re labeling that coworker without putting together the whole picture.

“Be gentle with yourself, they are common for a reason,” Ketch said.

That doesn’t mean it’s all you. But it’s important to frame things by what you can do, instead of focusing on that person’s actions.

That way, you’re not wasting energy on things you can’t change, and instead using it to change the situation for the better.

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.