How to Understand Your Colleagues

Working well with colleagues is an essential part of being employed. Regardless of whether or not you actually get along, the ability to work with someone despite your differences is a basic requirement to keep your job. But work is hardly ever enjoyable when you’re sitting across from someone you despise; so here are a few ways you can improve or strengthen your relationships with your colleagues through caring and understanding.


More often than not, conversations are two-way streets, and they should be. However, when one person has the floor, many people make the mistake of trying to relate when it’s more appropriate to just listen and sympathize. For instance, if a co-worker is telling you about family drama, don’t try to one-up him at every turn. Instead, listen carefully and ask questions. Be involved in his side of the conversation so that when it’s your turn, he provides the same courtesy.

However, if you find that your co-worker takes the floor way too often and never lets you speak during conversations, you may want to consider some tactics to help you steer the conversation in a different direction. If you need to end the conversation, simply tell them that you’ve got an appointment or a task to finish; if you want to keep talking, interject by asking if they mind if you interrupt them for a moment. Usually that will snap people back into a more courteous conversation.

Listening ensures that your co-workers feel like you’re respecting them and making an effort to care, which can be really helpful if you ever end up in a disagreement or have a misunderstanding. It’s less likely that hard feelings will fester if your co-workers know they can come talk to you and you’ll listen.

Stick to what’s appropriate

It sucks when someone starts a conversation that makes other people uncomfortable. Religion, politics and personal relationships can all fall under this category and can make for some really awkward talks with co-workers, who generally don’t want to get involved in any conversations about these topics.

Steer clear of these topics, and if someone starts a conversation with you about any one of them, you may want to lead the talk in another direction, even if the topic doesn’t make you uncomfortable. It’s easy to offend others without meaning to.

If all else fails, ask directly

If there’s a misunderstanding at work or someone is upset with you, you’ll waste time and effort beating around the bush trying to figure out what the problem is. While asking directly does not imply being rude to get to the root of the problem, it does involve taking the person aside and asking if everything is alright; ask them if there was something you said or did that offended them, or what part of a statement or question you misunderstood. Use "I" statements in order to show that you’re willing to do your part to fix the problem--it will also keep your co-worker from going on the defensive. 

When you ask them directly why they’re upset and pull them aside, they may be more likely to share honestly with you and the problem may be more easily resolved. Don’t make an office drama of the issue--not only does that make you both look unprofessional, but it can really damage your relationship.

Working well with colleagues doesn’t have to be hard even if you don’t like them. Just make sure that you listen, stick to appropriate topics and if you do offend someone be direct about asking them what is wrong.

Have you encountered problems understanding your colleagues? What methods have you used to get past this obstacle if any? Your thoughts and comments below…

Creative commons licensed (BY-ND) flickr photo by David Blackwell.