Stressed about how to work with colleague? A businessman-turned-therapist offers tips on how to ease tensions at work

Stressed about how to work with colleague? A businessman-turned-therapist offers tips on how to ease tensions at work

By Bill Macaux, PhD, MBA

Relationship skills have a pervasive and positive effect on your career. They help you collaborate, lead, and solve problems with greater ease. They allow you to leverage the abilities and skills of others. And they’ll get you noticed as someone with whom others like to work

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Building strong work relationships relies on the ability to notice and build trust amidst tensions. This four-step guide will help you learn to recognize and respond to tensions when they arise in the workplace, in order create healthy work relationships with colleagues and supervisors and further your career.  

  1. Notice tension as a signal that you and your colleagues need to talk
  2. Discuss your feelings and concerns in a spirit of trust and openness
  3. Evaluate your progress and stay aligned to the same purpose
  4. Initiate & sustain purposive action
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Notice tension as a signal that you and your colleagues need to talk

Interpersonal tension can lead to stress, strain, and conflict. When it builds, persists, and becomes chronic, it exhausts us, depleting our social, emotional, and mental capacities to function well. But interpersonal tension is normal and can also be a stimulus for growth – it all depends on what we do when we encounter it.   

Tension grows and becomes negative when we react defensively, or by denying our feelings rather than using them as data. This allows fear and discomfort to govern us, and only reinforces our tendencies to avoid things that feel difficult. We see them as beyond our control, threatening to our wellbeing.  

But fears grow in darkness. So, when we learn to simply notice our felt tension – in our body, our mood, and our thoughts – we free ourselves to discover their source, course, and meaning. We see what they’re about – the worries, troubled thoughts, and fears that underlie them.  

Try it first in a safe relationship. Notice when tension builds: What do you and others do with it?

If you notice that your tendency is to “run” and try your best to not discuss the “elephant in the room,”  next time, give the conversation time to breath. In this space, take time to notice all of your feelings, and approach them with curiosity, examination, discussion.

Discuss your feelings and concerns in a spirit of trust and openness

A readiness to notice and discuss episodes of tension with others, to be curious about what it means, and to do so with patience and empathy, requires trust. In the beginning, however, we create trust with a leap of faith. We must believe that our positive intentions and sincere efforts will be recognized as such and relax our guard, suspend judgment, and slow down.

Just as fears grow in darkness, trust grows in light and transparency: when our self-disclosures make us vulnerable, when we acknowledge our role in creating tension, and when we seek to understand others. Each time we do this we build confidence in our joint capacity to operate from a position of trust.

Of course, we want to trust the integrity of others. But at work, we must also trust their competence to be a reliable co-worker. That means we must review our joint work, exchange feedback on how things are going, what’s working and what needs to improve. Withholding concerns or misgivings only amplifies mistrust. Mixed signals will bleed through any pretense to trust and good faith.   

Tensions and trust are felt before they’re rationally known. Don’t be too cautious to express your feelings; this slows the growth of trust and decreases the efficacy of relationships. Instead, try to notice your emotional reaction and seek to understand the underlying meaning behind the raw emotion.

Evaluate your progress and stay aligned to the same purpose

Another critical work relationship skill is the ability to align on a shared purpose and realign when goals drift apart.  This includes agreeing on goals, your rationale for pursuing them, and the roles you and your colleagues will play in the process -- but it also includes recognizing addressing when your goals start to drift apart during execution.  

You may need to adaptively redefine both means and ends based upon experience and feedback. We usually recognize drift as much by what we feel (emotional data) as by what we know (rational data). That means that timely notice of concerns must be voiced. You must be ready to tolerate some momentary defensiveness. This is natural, but how you resolve it is key. Try putting your thoughts, feelings, concerns, and points of view on the table. Be open about what’s important to you. Instead of retreating from them and letting your defensiveness take over, examine the differences and face up to them.  Constructively redefine a “truer” version of your purpose and strategy, all the while letting your colleagues know that you’re in this together and want to find a shared goal.

Establish open communication and trust as the norm

Learning from tension and taking risks to build trust in the early days of working together are vital to getting through any disagreements. They enable you to:

  1. Notice tension as a signal that you and your colleagues need to talk
  2. Discuss your feelings and concerns in a spirit of trust and openness
  3. Evaluate your progress based on feedback.

Perhaps the most important skill is the ability to sustain this standard and establish open communication and trust as the norm.

Aligned, interdependent action is initiated and lost on a daily basis.Therefore, sustaining itis an important discipline as well. When we drift, and lose focus, momentum, and efficiency, we’re tempted to react poorly and blame others. But with confidence in well-tested norms, you can adaptively notice, examine, and learn from your felt tensions. We do some productive storming.     

By building work relationships in which you o welcome feedback and view issues with curiosity, you can allocate more mental bandwidth to positive, solution-focused thinking. This is the heart of great relationships: believing that you will survive the tension and come out the other side in a better place if you face it squarely with fresh eyes.


Dr. Macaux is a psychologist in Providence, RI with expertise in personal growth, relationships, career counseling, transitions, depression, and anxiety. Before receiving his PhD in Counseling Psychology, Bill studied philosophy for several years, earned a Masters in Marriage & Family Therapy, and worked in the corporate world (IBM & Cisco) while completing an MBA. He brings a combination of compassion and pragmatism to his work with clients. He believes in the power of joint discovery.