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How To Work With Someone Who Only Wants To Argue

Your co-worker asks to borrow your smartphone, and then questions why you would buy this type of phone in the first place. Let's talk about the co-worker who always wants to argue!


You walk into work, and there is your co-worker waiting to bash your choice of coffee, your favorite bagel, your work outfit, or whatever else captures the attention.

Don't worry, you'll get around to discussing the work -- right after the conflict-creating co-worker finishes pouring a dash of doom and gloom into your choice of morning coffee. It's expensive, it tastes bad, and anyone with good taste wouldn't go anywhere near it.

If you've ever worked alongside someone who is always looking to generate conflict, then you know how draining it can be. Everything is open to debate, everyone is open to review, and both the personal and professional seem to fall within this co-worker's purview. No matter how trivial the argument seems in hindsight. It goes beyond having a strong opinion. This co-worker likes to push people's buttons.

In the happy circumstance you haven't worked with the conflict-creating colleague, then let's set up a simple, hypothetical workplace interaction to illustrate what we're talking about here:

Employee A: Hey, could I borrow your umbrella?
Employee B: Sure, here you go.
Employee A: Ugh, it's neon and has a logo on it. Really?
Employee B: I'm not sure I understand the problem.
Employee A: Um, it's...tacky? Hello? If I'm going to be a walking advertisement, I should get paid!
Employee B: It's just an umbrella, you know. Geez.
Employee A: You really should invest in a less-embarrassing umbrella sometime, that's all I'm saying.
Employee B: You're always welcome to borrow somebody else's umbrella instead.
Employee A: So now you're saying that I can't use it? Okaaaaay.
Employee B: No, I'm not saying that. You can use it if you want. Whatever, dude.
Employee A: I don't need it anymore. See ya.

Yikes. Now replace "umbrella" with, well, just about anything else. Pens, staplers, framed family photos, office plants, vacation destinations, presidential elections, spreadsheets or family leave. It doesn't really matter what it is, because this co-worker's raison d'etre at work is to lure co-workers into another argument.

How on earth do you work with this co-worker effectively?

Employee B's first mistake was being lured into the conflict-creating co-worker's petty umbrella debate in the first place. Employee B allowed herself to get reeled in like a big fish on the end of a line. Employee A wanted a reaction, and got it.

Now let's revisit the hypothetical argument to see how Employee B could have handled it differently.

Employee A: Hey, could I borrow your umbrella?
Employee B: Sure, here you go.
Employee A: Ugh, it's neon and has a logo on it. Really?
Employee B: Oh. Excuse me, I have to make a phone call...
Employee A: You really should invest in a less-embarrassing umbrella sometime, that's all I'm saying.
Employee B: Stay dry out there! [Dials phone] I'll see you at the afternoon meeting, okay?

Employee A was trying to start something, but Employee B saw it coming, shut it down, and didn't take the bait. It takes a lot of strength -- and staying one step ahead of the argumentative co-worker! -- to pull off this tactic with flair and consistency.

You can also rely on the four magic phrases, although it's debatable whether or not this strategy would end the argument or keep it going in some cases. Still, this clip offers good advice for handling awkward, unexpected interactions at work.


Another tip: start distinguishing the petty workplace arguments from the important ones. Which types of arguments will you engage in at work, and which ones will you avoid because they're just not worth it? (Hint: the important arguments will concern the work, since this is a workplace.)

Before you respond to a co-worker's latest challenging remark, decide how much investment, on a scale from 1 to 10, you are willing to place in it. It's one thing to argue over who has spent more Saturdays at work this month; it's quite another to argue over the quality of the office supplies on your desk.

If constant conflict with one co-worker has become a workplace distraction, then you might wait until a calm moment to raise the issue. You might say how you two seem to be arguing over small things, and how you just want to be able to work well together, end of debate. Only you can decide if this step would be worth the effort, though.

Remember, it takes two to argue. In deciding not to participate in this co-worker's pointless arguments, you might find that he or she eventually disarms in your presence -- at least somewhat -- once it's become difficult, if not impossible, to get a rise out of you. You're just too much work these days!

Enjoy the peace and quiet. You've earned it the hard way.

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