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Care talk with Tanya Russell: Maintaining sound relationships

QUESTION: I work in a small team and generally get along well with everyone. However, there is one person I find it difficult to speak up to, and I am often upset by how she speaks to me. Her sarcasm towards me can be tiring and often upsetting. How do I talk to her and preserve our working relationship?


Many of us avoid having awkward conversations due to fear of upsetting our colleagues and of conflict. Many of us also feel we need to have confidence to address issues at work or in our personal lives. However, confidence does not come naturally, and it seems you have reached a point where you must resolve your concerns.

The actual steps in preparing for, and having, an awkward − or courageous − conversation are not too difficult but our emotions and the emotions of the other person can make it tricky. However, consider the consequences of not having the conversation.

Here is a brief outline you could use:

  • Prepare On paper or in your mind, be clear about the issue and desired outcome. Be ready with examples – specific behaviours you have observed which relate to how you feel. Be prepared to manage your own emotions and have the conversation as soon as possible.
  • Have the conversation
    • Name the issue: “I’d like to have a chat about our conversation yesterday in relation to a client account.”
    • Give specific examples: “When I asked your advice on an invoice error, you loudly started teasing me about my maths and computer skills, in an open area with other staff around.”
    • Describe your emotion: “I felt that you weren’t listening as you started making fun of me instead of answering my question. I felt embarrassed and belittled so I shut down and didn’t feel like I could continue talking to you.”
    • Acknowledge your contribution: If you feel you have contributed to any misunderstanding, say so at this point.
    • Express wish to resolve issue: “I want us to have a good working relationship and hope that I can raise these sorts of things with you.”
    • Invite response: “What do you think?”
    • Listen and ask questions to clarify your understanding.
    • Find ways to work together: “In future I would prefer you to answer questions without sarcasm as it does affect me. Let me know if I can act differently too.”

The steps in preparing and having the conversation are not complicated but keep in mind that no conversation will unfold according to script, so be prepared to reiterate.

When making your first statement about wanting to talk to your colleague, ask her to let you say all you need to say before responding. Interruptions lead to increased conflict and deflection. Be respectful and mindful of your colleague, especially if you feel her intentions are good. Continue to treat her with kindness and respect.

This is not a conversation any of us really enjoys so good luck!