Tory Johnson: Avoid Confrontation at Your Own Risk

I'm often asked for advice on how to determine if a colleague or boss is dissatisfied with your performance. Some people wonder if it's best to let sleeping dogs lie. In other words, don't ask because it risks calling attention to your weaknesses. In most cases, I tend to disagree.

The more experience you have to your credit, the more your intuition is likely to serve you well. You know when people are moody or having a bad day versus times when there's a lingering issue that may explode. Your gut instinct enables you to sense potential problems and respond to them before they snowball into larger issues.

For example, you may spot a change in behavior with a colleague. She used to always ask if you wanted coffee before she made her daily run to Starbucks. Now, even though she still goes out to grab her cup of joe, she hasn't extended the offer to you in weeks. You're not entirely sure what's at the root of her distance and cool behavior, but you are convinced that something is going on.

Don't dismiss your concerns. Without overreacting, ask yourself, "What may have precipitated this change? Is this colleague going through a challenge? Or does this seem to involve me?"

If the behavior and your concerns persist, act on it. Since you don't yet know the whole story, tread lightly. Don't assume that the problem is a reflection on you.

State Your Concerns Directly

Start by attempting to get more information in a non-confrontational manner. Connect with a compliment and then state your concern. For example, "I value your opinion, and our professional relationship matters a great deal to me. In the last month there's been a noticeable shift from our daily conversations to very little communication at all. I'm hoping that you'll tell me what's at the root of this change."

If possible, avoid asking, "Is there a problem?" or "Did I do something wrong?" Generally you won't get an honest answer because it's very easy for someone to simply say no in an attempt to brush you off and avoid an uncomfortable confrontation.

Even when you approach the situation directly and respectfully, you may encounter some resistance. The other person may initially say, "No, everything is fine," which is often the reaction when caught off guard. In such an instance, you can reiterate your concern, without sounding any alarms. "If there is anything I can help with or do differently, please let me know. You can always be candid and straight with me."

In this case, even though you may not unearth the issue, you may spark a change in behavior. For example, the colleague who's ignored you on her coffee run may go back to including you again.

Try to Avoid Arguments

If you do encounter a candid co-worker who responds by admitting that he or she is troubled by you or your actions, be sure to have an open, non-contentious dialogue. Be receptive to hearing the criticism, as opposed to be alarmed or defensive, even if you were unprepared for what he or she might say. If you need a moment or two to gather your thoughts before addressing the issues, ask for that time: "I understand what you're saying and I'd like to address your concerns."

Remain calm and measured, since the outcome is often determined by the way you handle yourself. Tone and delivery can be even more important than the specific words you choose.

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