How to Deal with a Coworker's Cold Shoulder

Cyndie Courtney, DVM, The Jerk Researcher

ArticleLast Updated December 20224 min read
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Dear Second Opinion,

I’ve been working full time at a 2-doctor veterinary practice for about 3 years. The other veterinarian is also the practice owner. She and I got along really well in the beginning. We would frequently collaborate on cases, chat about personal things during lunch, and would even meet up socially outside of practice. I consider her not only a mentor and colleague, but also a friend. 

In the last 6 months or so, I’ve noticed that things have definitely changed between us. She seems annoyed when I ask for her input on any of my cases, and she has declined several invitations to do things outside of work. Our conversations at work are now very short and impersonal. 

I’m not aware of anything going on in her life that might account for her change in behavior, but since she isn’t as communicative as she once was, I can’t say for sure. 

I have no desire to leave this practice, so I’d rather make things better here if I can. (Truthfully, because of my family situation and my noncompete clause, leaving isn’t a practical option.)

Should I say something? Or will this make things even more awkward?

—Iced Out


Dear Iced Out,

First, take care of yourself. 

You’re navigating a new, tricky work dynamic while grieving your former friendship. It may help to work through any big feelings before you attempt a complex conversation. Receiving empathy can help de-escalate big feelings, preparing us to think and then converse more constructively. Before talking to your coworker, talk to a friend or family member outside of work who can understand and validate what you’re feeling without letting you ruminate or ramping up the drama.

Second, consider whether you feel safe saying something. 

When considering a confrontation, Georgetown researcher Christine Porath PhD suggests safety is one of the first things we should think about.1 

Particularly, do you feel financially safe talking to your boss about this? You mentioned leaving wasn’t a practical option for you, and you might reasonably worry your job could be at risk if this conversation doesn’t go well.

You’ll need to weigh the benefits and risks of bringing this up. What might you gain? Ideally, you’d renew this relationship by better understanding and supporting your friend. Perhaps more realistically, you’ll at least get information for clearer decision making going forward. What are the potential costs? Even if it goes well, this conversation is likely to be emotionally taxing, taking patience and empathy. It sounds like the worst-case scenario is that you might get fired or pushed out of this job, when you really don’t want to move or work somewhere else. If you’re mostly worried about making things awkward around the practice, it sounds like you’re already there.

Third, ask to talk.

Finally, what should the conversation look like?

Enter the conversation with an even emotional keel. If she’s not sure why you wanted to talk, start by sharing what’s being going on for you, as objectively as you can. For instance, instead of saying, “You were annoyed when I asked for input on cases,” which might trigger a defensive, “I wasn’t annoyed with you!” instead consider, “I noticed you said no the last 3 times I asked if you’d look at radiographs with me.”

It’s usually easier for people to listen if they feel they’ve been heard first. If she’s eager to start things off, let her take the reins. If she’s more reluctant, ask her to share her story, using a broad question like, “How have things been going from your perspective?” The conversation might get emotional, and it’s okay to ask for a pause or to come back to the conversation a different day.

Just like taking a good history, the key is to be nonjudgmental and to ask open-ended questions. Try to hold onto curiosity and the intent to understand. You might find just hearing her side gives you a better idea of how to move forward.

Hopefully, her response will help you feel safe sharing what’s been going on for you and what specific outcome you are hoping for: “I like you and miss spending time with you. I’d love it if we could collaborate and socialize more often.”

While ongoing and engrained negative behavior is challenging to change, fortunately, this is an acute issue. Although the outcome depends on your boss, you have a better prognosis for a productive discussion.

I wish you the best,

Sincerely,

Cyndie Courtney, DVM The Jerk Researcher®

This article is not intended to provide or replace any legal or therapeutic advice, please consult licensed legal, HR, or counseling professionals as appropriate.