Hard Co-Worker

February 07 2018 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: I have a very difficult relationship with my closest work colleague. The problem is that I cannot avoid interacting with her because our tasks are very closely connected. Her contribution is essential in order for me to get my work done. She is not a bad person, it’s just that I cannot seem to talk to her outside of what’s strictly essential for the work. Whenever I have tried to ‘break the ice’ with her she comes out with unpleasant comments about the way I talk, the things I say and do in the office, etc. Fortunately, there are other people at work with whom I do get along, and my husband says that I should just socialize with them, but it’s still unpleasant to have to work closely with someone who despises you. What can I do to ease this situation?


It is difficult to deal with the fact that not everyone will like us, and sometimes there is genuinely nothing we can do about it. The good news is that we are not under any obligations to God or to our faith to make every relationship go perfectly smoothly on our own. No matter what we do, some relationships will not be healed this side of heaven.

That said, it is important not to write people off lightly. In Matthew 18:15 Jesus lays out a process for trying to work through problems with others. The first step is to speak to them directly and privately. The second step, when possible, is to see if there is someone who can serve as an intermediary and facilitate some kind of reconciliation. The third step, if the other person still doesn’t change, is to maintain a polite distance, dealing with them as little as possible and limiting your interactions to civilly, superficially, and quickly getting through the task at hand so you can go back to your separate lives. Specifically, “treat them as a tax collector.”

You say you have already attempted to address the issue directly, but it might be worth saying something to your co-worker like, “I know I rub you the wrong way. There’s nothing I can do about my voice, or my looks, or my personality. And let’s face it, we’re never going to be best friends. But I’d like to think there are some ways we could be a little more thoughtful or considerate of each other. Let’s both try a little harder. Agreed?”

If she ignores this firm but gentle invitation to a détente, and there is no one in the office who can effectively call her on her behavior, the only other option is to “treat her as a tax collector.” That is, you don’t go looking for the tax collector’s attention. And you certainly aren’t rude to the tax collector when he comes around. You smile. You’re polite. You fight down the desire to slap him while he’s asking intrusive questions about your books. Then you wish him well and show him the door. It doesn’t matter if he likes you. You don’t get together for coffee. And you don’t know his kids’ names. In. Out. Done.

If it turns out that this is the best you can do when you have to work with this person and she treats you poorly, by all means feel free to defend yourself from any attacks that seek to undermine your employment or prevent you from effectively doing your job, but count everything else as pettiness that isn’t worth the trouble of responding to. Instead, offer up a small prayer like, “Lord, please heal whatever hurts that have made her such a petty, spiteful person, and help me to be the one person today that shows her a little kindness and mercy.”

This prayer reminds you first that she is God’s responsibility not yours, and second that even though you aren’t responsible for making the relationship work on your own, you are still responsible for being Christ to her and showing her what little kindness you can. Sometimes that’s all we can do. Fortunately, through God’s grace, it is enough.

Updated on February 07 2018