Know when your answers have crossed the finish line

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in Your Office Coach

Q: “One of my co-workers, ‘Bethany,’ has stopped talking to me. This happened after she asked about my relationship with another co-worker, ‘Ray.’ Ray and I recently met with human resources to resolve an ongoing conflict. 

“Bethany said, ‘You and Ray were bitter enemies, but now you’re best friends. What’s the story?’ I replied, ’Ray and I are now getting along fine because we’ve agreed to just focus on our work. That is all you need to know about this.’ I did not mention the HR meeting because it was none of her business.

“Ever since that conversation, Bethany refuses to join me for lunch and even ducks into an office if she sees me coming. Whenever I ask what’s wrong, she says ‘Nothing.’ What should I do?”  Private Person

A: Unfortunately, your reply to this curious colleague went one step too far. The best response to unwelcome inquiries is to provide limited information, so your first sentence was perfect. Had you stopped there, you could have deflected additional questions by saying “I’d really prefer not to revisit all that unpleasantness,” then quickly changing the subject. 

Adding “that is all you need to know” was completely unnecessary. From Bethany’s point of view, she undoubtedly felt she was being scolded for asking a perfectly harmless question, so now she’s trying to punish you by sulking.

To put an end to this petulance, you must first stop asking what’s wrong. Bethany is never going to tell you, and besides, you already know the answer. These frequent inquiries only serve to reinforce her childish behavior by letting her know that it bothers you.

Instead, sit down with her and calmly address the real issue: “Bethany, I think I may have hurt your feelings when you asked about Ray. I didn’t mean to be short with you, but I was tired of thinking about that situation. I really hope we can go back to being friends.”  After that, just remain friendly and wait for the passive-aggressive pouting to diminish. 

Do you have trust issues with a co-worker? Perhaps this will help: Trust and Betrayal at Work.

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