How to Treat the Touchy Colleague

Sometimes, even casual exchanges can set co-workers off. When you hit a nerve, learn from the experience instead of snapping back

It's pleasant to walk into the office on a sunny morning and hear "Good morning!" from your cheerful co-workers. It's something else entirely to say "Good morning" to a colleague and be met with "Keep your good morning to yourself!" But that's what happened to a friend of mine at work not long ago. Talk about a hostile work environment!

After starting a new job or moving to a new department it won't take long to learn who are the shiny, happy people and who are the unhappy, grouchy ones. People should be themselves, no question there. But do they have to lay their bad moods on everyone they meet? That's where the problem comes in. I believe that you go to work to get the job done. You shouldn't also have to creep around on eggshells for fear of inadvertently ticking off the wrong person.

As we all know, there are people who are always in a sour mood and never fail to let people know it. Fair enough—if you know that John is evil on Mondays or that Janice gets cranky after lunchtime, you can avoid those people as much as possible at those times. What can take you by surprise is people's hidden sensitivities.

Don't Respond with Anger

One time I swung by the front reception desk and asked the receptionist "How's life treating you?" I wasn't really expecting—or wanting—a detailed answer. "Horribly!" she said, and gave me the full rundown of her troubles. Mental note to self: "How's life treating you?" is not to be used in casual conversation.

Yes, you can legitimately expect people to be offended when you ask them personal questions or downright inappropriate ones. But you can offend people by asking them where they live. You can set someone off by asking how long she has worked for the company. You can bother the wrong person by asking him whether he's originally from around the area or is a transplant.

The point is people can be surprisingly touchy when you're just trying to be sociable or make pleasant conversation, and it's frustrating. But there is something you can do to ease the walking-on-eggshells pressure.

First off, it's helpful to keep in mind where these sensitive reactions come from. Most likely, the issue isn't you, or anything generally unlikable about you, but the touchy person's own past experiences and fears. It's very hard to surmount that old baggage, no matter how personable you are. That's why I recommend that when you're rebuffed by a co-worker, it's best not to respond with anger. If you can manage it, a far better approach is to stay friendly and, if it feels appropriate, try to delicately learn more about what upset your colleague.

Stop and Smile

So, let's say you ask a colleague, "Frank, did I see you at Short Hills Mall on Sunday?" Let's say that Frank responds with "Very funny! I've never been to Short Hills in my life!" He's not pleased. You fail to see the grave insult embedded in your question, but you've read this column and remembered it, so you stay cool. "Oh, my mistake then," you say. "Did I upset you?"

Frank may walk away in anger, in which case you haven't learned much (except to put Frank on your Do Not Disturb list). But you may get lucky. Frank may explain his reaction. "Sorry to bark at you, but my ex-girlfriend practically lived at that Short Hills Mall, and I got sick of hearing about it all the time."

Well O.K.—no problem then. The unfortunate (but understandable) way to react to a co-worker's unfriendliness is to turn unfriendly yourself. Let's recall the friend of mine who said "Good morning!" to a colleague and got back "Keep it to yourself!" My friend didn't tell me what she did in that case, but you couldn't blame her if she simply walked away, disgusted.

Here's what I would recommend: Stop, smile, and say "Anything you want to talk about?" You might get an earful, but if you care about relationships, the next five minutes of listening time may be very well spent. We all have bad days.

If you were stressed out, you would no doubt handle it better, but you might want nothing more than someone to vent with.

The T-Quotient

Now what about the person who resents you asking where he's from or where in the metro area she's located? Sometimes people have been the victim of bad relationships or identity theft or some other awful experience. They may be sensitive for years into the future, even reacting badly to innocuous questions. If you ask your teammate, "So, do you live in the city?" and he says "None of your business," you can stalk away red-faced, or you can ask another question. "Sorry, I wasn't trying to be intrusive," you could say. "Did I offend you somehow?"

Maybe you will learn that Pete is still angry with you after being upstaged at last week's staff meeting. Or maybe you will hear that Marla is embarrassed to be living with her mom in Queens and wishes she still had her Manhattan apartment. Maybe, if the touchiness quotient is very high for a particular colleague, you won't learn anything new at all.

But asking the question "Did I offend you?" rather than becoming indignant yourself, is a good idea. It signifies that you're an experienced communicator and are sincerely curious about how your words affect others—and that you're not curious about information they wish to keep to themselves. The same can't be said for every single person on Earth, as you know.

Drawing on Finesse

As an HR person, you often don't have a choice as to whether or not to probe for information when you sense that you've upset someone. You can't simply walk away when someone rebuffs your conversational overtures. So, over the years I have seen the value of stopping to regroup, and then asking (gingerly) another question, and the results have been enlightening.

Some folks, possessing many other valuable skills, simply don't know how to handle their stress or unhappiness. At the slightest irritation, they react like a Venus flytrap. But you can overcome that touchiness with a bit of finesse, and stop the eggshell-walking routine at work. You've got plenty of other things to think about, right?

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