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How to Handle Awkward Situations With Your Coworkers

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Having friends at work is a blessing: You have someone to eat lunch with, a sounding board for ideas, and a supportive shoulder to lean on when the boss is being completely unreasonable. Besides, you likely spend eight-plus hours a day, five days a week with them—which means you probably see them much more often than your outside-of-work pals.

Just like with any other relationship, conflicts and awkward situations are bound to occur. Here’s how to get through the most cringeworthy situations you’ll encounter with coworkers.

You Get a Promotion—and Your Friend Doesn’t

Having a friend at your same level means you can share your workplace trials and tribulations. But when one of you rises in the ranks, it’s bound to shift your dynamic. Don’t pretend it won’t happen: Acknowledging the situation by being realistic and tactful is key.

If she gets promoted, then congratulate her. If the situation is reversed, be open about the accomplishment without bragging, says relationship advice columnist April Masini. When your friend gives you props on the gig, thank her and let her know that you’re excited to take on the challenge, without embellishing.

[Read: How to Work With Your Best Friend]

If one of you will now report to the other, be proactive and talk about the change, says sociologist and friendship coach Dr. Jan Yager, author of Friendshifts. Discussing your expectations openly can help you both feel less worried that you won’t be able to deal with the friendship-related challenges that the promotion might bring.

As for the conversation itself, psychologist and creator of The Friendship Blog, Irene S. Levine, PhD, suggests saying that your new roles may alter your office relationship, but you hope it won’t disrupt your friendship. Feel free to tell your friend that you need some time to adjust to your new responsibilities and won’t be as available, friend-wise, as you used to be, she says. And you may need to “be cautious about separating your work from your friendship,” she says, especially when it comes to discussing sensitive work-related information.

You’re Close With Your Boss—and You Get Into a Fight

Perhaps your boss is like a mentor to you, or maybe you two have connected on a deeper level and spend time together outside of work. Unfortunately, this connection doesn’t shield you from disagreements. Nor does it change that fact that she’s your boss.

If a conflict comes up, stay professional and friendly rather than jumping on the defensive. If the conflict was small—like a disagreement that got a little more aggressive than necessary—send a quick email to smooth things over. If the situation escalated to the point of hurt feelings or unprofessional behavior, schedule a time to talk about it outside the office. Having some time to cool off and the ability to talk away from your desks will give you a better chance of emerging with your working relationship and your friendship intact.

[Read: How to Set Boundaries With Your Boss]

Your Coworker Wants to Double Date, but You Don’t

Turning down this offer can be tricky. You’ll need to be nice but firm. Yager suggests trying a subtle approach at first: “Some people will get the hint if you say you’re too busy to get together, especially if you don’t immediately offer an alternate date,” she says.

Or you could say that you’d rather get coffee or lunch just the two of you (instead of with your partners) by saying something like, “Our weekends are pretty booked—let’s just grab lunch tomorrow instead. I’d love to get your opinion about [insert work topic here] anyway.”

If you’d really just prefer not to hang out with this person at all, relationship expert and psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, PhD, suggests declining politely and then finding a work-related way to be nice to this person in the near future, either by offering your help with a project or suggesting a collaboration. That way, you give your colleague the brush-off from your personal life, but not from a healthy working relationship.

You Have a Falling-Out With a Coworker

The solution depends on how well you can separate your personal relationship from your business one. If you’ve cut ties on a friendship level, remember that work is your first responsibility.

“Maintain a collegial, professional relationship so the falling-out doesn’t have a negative impact on your work or make other people around you feel uncomfortable,” Levine says. This means no bad-mouthing your former friend or offering details about what happened between you two. If anyone asks, Levine suggests saying “We aren’t as friendly anymore,” and leaving it at that.

[Read: Don’t Let Office Gossip Ruin Your Career]

How to make your workdays less painful? Carve out time to talk about what happened when you’re not on the clock. Meet someplace neutral and try to find a plan for interacting at the office that works for both of you, says Nicole Zangara, LCSW, author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. You should feel free to get into the logistics: “Maybe agree to say hi to each other, but that’s all the talking you have to do,” she says.

You’re Close With Two Coworkers but Not the Third

While it might be awkward to have an odd person out on your team, remember that friendships are voluntary relationships, Levine says, and that you aren’t under any obligation to befriend every single one of your coworkers. That said, you don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable or gain a reputation for being cliquey, which can lead people to think you’re not a team player.

The solution? “Don’t make social plans for get-togethers outside the office in front of the third person or talk about what a great time you had together over the weekend,” Levine says. “Avoid favoritism and make every effort to be even-handed in the way you treat the members of your team in the workplace.” Talk to your office BFFs about it so they’re on board, too.

Everyone on Your Team Has Bonded but You’re on the Outside

Being on the outskirts of a work clique can be annoying, even if you don’t really want to be an insider. If you’re just a new employee, Levine suggests giving people a chance to get to know you and making an effort to be more outgoing. “Greet people warmly,” she says, and “show an interest in their lives and work. Try to be helpful.”

These three actions will help break the ice and let relationships form organically. Remember that friendship takes time. Be patient and don’t force it.

[Read: The Unwritten Rules of Drinking with Coworkers]

In some cases, however, you might find it hard to integrate—age, culture, language, and other factors can make for big barriers, Zangara says. “If that’s the case, try not to take it personally and recognize you have to focus on doing your work and cultivating friendships outside the workplace,” she advises. “Continue to be friendly and see if there are any similarities or common interests that you can talk to them about.” And if everyone’s laughing at an inside joke that you don’t get, try emailing your outside-of-work friends for a quick pick-me-up.

You Overhear Work Friends Talking About You

Don’t just hide in the bathroom stall/behind the vending machine/next to a large potted plant and listen to your friends gossip. But that doesn’t mean you need to confront them. “You can come out [and] greet everyone, and your mere presence will let them know you heard what they said,” Tessina says. If you feel the urge to say something more, try something like, “I’m honored to be the topic of so much conversation,” Tessina suggests. Then walk away.

Afterward, give yourself time to cool off and keep your distance. “Give those people ‘adult time-outs,’ and retreat to politeness,” Tessina advises. ‘”Do anything you need to do for work, but do not interact in an overtly friendly way.” If these people are really your friends, they’ll apologize for being catty and come to you directly next time they have a problem.

You Pick Up the Tab on Coffee Runs and Your Friend Never Does

The first rule of lending money is that you should never offer funds you need or expect to get back, Masini says. You have to assume that if you pay the check for someone, you run the risk of never getting the same in return.

That said, your friend may be super forgetful and simply not realize she’s not reciprocating when it’s time for your 3 pm caffeine fix. Or getting you back just might not be a priority. “Sometimes people borrow money with no intention of paying it back,” Masini says. “They think that $20 doesn’t matter to them, so it shouldn’t matter to you.”

The next time you go out for a coffee, break the pattern by saying, “Hey, do you mind getting this round? I picked up the last couple.” Sure, it may feel weird at first, but chances are she’ll acquiesce and realize she’s been mooching.

Photo: Getty Images

This article originally appeared on

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