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Navigating Workplace Conflict: When Communication Isn't the Solution

Just over a year ago, a former student reached out to me for some advice about a workplace relationship that was causing her stress. I recall Samantha (not her real name) being an excellent student and highly respected by her peers and the faculty. After graduating about three years ago, she went to work for a financial services organization where was quickly promoted and has earned consistent praise from her managers for her strong analytical ability and excellent client management skills.

However, Samantha’s communication with one particular coworker was resulting in constant conflict, and she wanted to explore strategies to improve their working relationship.

The Conflict

In our first call Samantha told me her colleague would get defensive almost every time they interacted. The incident that prompted her to contact me was when her colleague said she didn’t trust Samantha.

Samantha shared some of the ways she had tried to address this situation. She met one-on-one with her colleague to try to get to know her better and understand her perspective. She also attempted to increase the frequency of their communication, believing that more communication would help them build trust. In every interaction, Samantha made a conscious effort to be kind in both her words and nonverbal communication.

Nothing worked.

We got into the specifics of what was happening and discussed a few other approaches. When Samantha shared any form or feedback, her colleague got defensive. We discussed strategies for providing effective feedback. No luck.

When Samantha shared her opinion, her colleague would almost always disagree (even when Samantha perceived that their opinions were quite similar). We discussed remaining neutral when the team was attempting to make decisions. Her colleague was critical when Samantha didn’t pick a side.

It's Not Me, It's You

Then it occurred to me that it probably wasn’t the messages Samantha was sending that was causing the conflict, it was likely how the messages were being perceived. I asked about how similar messages were being received by the most well-respected members of her team. No issues.

Samantha came to me looking for something she could do to fix the problem. However, we eventually realized this wasn’t a situation she could fix. Her colleague appeared to be so insecure that they would feel threatened by almost anything Samantha said or did and this resulted in defensive and unreasonable reactions towards her.

Less Communication Can Be Better

My suggestion to Samantha echoed the advice of organizational communication scholars James McCroskey and Virginia Richmond: Ignore her colleague and stay out of her way. When communication was necessary, deference and agreement might be the only form of communication that does not produce a defensive reaction.

As someone who thinks that effective communication can solve interpersonal conflict in the workplace, my advice still feels a bit unsettling. However, as I’ve come to learn, sometimes the most effective communication is achieved by communicating less.

And what about Samantha? She is spending less of her time worrying about her defensive colleague and more time producing excellent results for her company.

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