Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

My Coworker Cuts Me Off, Doesn’t Listen, and Always Says No. What Now?

Dear Joseph,

I am a new director in a healthcare environment. I am struggling to collaborate with another director who reports to a different administrator. She and I have very different leadership and communication styles, and it feels as if she does not respect my role. She does not listen, cuts me off mid-sentence, and is constantly trying to find a way to undermine me or say “no” to any new idea. No matter how hard I try to present something in a way that puts us on the same team, she will find a way to argue. Prior to my arrival she had already created a toxic environment and had lost the respect of her direct reports. This behavior has been allowed to continue over many years. Help! She will be the reason I quit this job!

On the Edge

Dear On the Edge,

For the sake of my response to you I am going to make two assumptions:

  1. You are accurately describing your peer’s behavior and its frequency.
  2. The behavior is not a reaction to some of your own behavior.

I will often challenge people to examine both of these assumptions. But for today, I’ll set that aside. Instead I will assume this person consistently interrupts people, opposes their ideas, and in other ways demonstrates disrespect to peers and direct reports. And it has nothing to do with you.

I have three suggestions for your consideration:

  1. Have it out. The highest risk action you can take is to completely level with her. This sometimes works. And sometimes it doesn’t. But you should at least consider having a completely honest crucial conversation in which you: a) let her know you are dissatisfied with the relationship, want a much better one, and are willing to work at it if she is; b) give her fully honest feedback about the range of behaviors that don’t work for you; c) invite the same level of candid feedback in return. I have had both success and failure with this approach. I have had relationships completely turn around when I stopped silently fuming against people and demonstrated an authentic desire to connect honestly. But I have had the opposite occur as well: I’ve had people resent my honesty, deny any of my concerns, and begrudge my attempt. However, I can honestly also say things were rarely worse than they were before I tried.
  2. Let it go. Another option is to work on your tolerance muscles. Do the “inner work” of sorting through the ways you emotionally amplify her unhelpful behaviors by personalizing them. For example, when she cuts you off do you feel slighted or belittled? If so, this is your stuff. Just because another person gives offense doesn’t mean you need to take it. The central task of life, in my view, is to learn to live happily with imperfect people. There are times when I conclude that a person’s weaknesses are so habitual that the amount of energy I am willing to invest is unlikely to produce change. In these instances, I can still choose to stay connected to them, weaknesses and all. I can learn to focus on the virtues I search for in them. But let me warm you: If you take this approach, you must do it honestly. This means that any time your resentments flare again, you will have to remind yourself that you chose to accept this. Choosing this route means you surrender the option of fuming about the weaknesses you chose to accept.
  3. Hold boundaries for the things you aren’t willing to let go. For example, perhaps you will decide that her reflexive negativity is something you can accept, but that it’s not okay with you that she cuts you off. If so, set a boundary. And remember rule number one about boundaries: Your boundaries are your job. It is up to you to enforce them. Let her know that this is a problem. It’s best not to do this in the moment when she is cutting you off. Make it a separate conversation. This takes more courage, but it is more fair and helpful in the end than ambushing her the next time she clips you. Let her know that you’d like her to be more aware of this. Invite feedback about ways you might be crowding her in conversations as well. For example, perhaps she thinks you take too long to make a point. Or that you repeat yourself. Her interruptions might be a signal that she isn’t getting anything new and wants to move on. Then next time you are speaking and she interrupts, hold the boundary! Politely say, “I’m not finished yet. I’ll try to be brief.” Then do so. When others cut you off and you say nothing, the problem is not that they are disrespecting you, it is that you are disrespecting you.
  4. Make a decision. Your final option is to move. If, on the whole, working with her compromises your quality of life in a way you aren’t willing to accept, then don’t accept it. Move. But if you don’t move, take responsibility for that choice. If you choose to stay, then you are choosing to use 1–3 above. Don’t blame her for being who she is. The worst kind of dishonesty is lying to ourselves. We do that when we claim we are victims rather than agents in our own choices.

Life is full of tradeoffs.

I hope this gives you a way of thinking clearly about yours.


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7 thoughts on “My Coworker Cuts Me Off, Doesn’t Listen, and Always Says No. What Now?”

  1. Jules

    I understand and use crucial conversations’ skills on a daily basis, until today when I was stopped in my tracks from having a conversation all together.
    My boss, who claims out of his mouth that “everyone needs crucial conversations skills”, shut me down and said, he didn’t want to hear what I had to say, and nor did he care what happened a few months back, all he wanted was think about today and move forward from today. I must say I was stunned because I was trying to explain the pain and frustration I was having trying to work out a training issue….and he wasn’t even trying to hear or understand.
    I felt small and don’t know how to begin to have a crucial conversation with someone not willing to have one!
    Please let me know a route I can take…Thank you!

    1. Frauke

      Hey Jules I am far from being an expert, but here I need to wonder – if your boss is someone who says that he values crucial conversation skills, maybe he means it but was not ready to have that discussion with you today. I feel sometimes we cut bosses too little slack – they cannot be at their best every minute of the day, and if he does not have time or energy or the mental space to deal with your training issue today, maybe he will tomorrow. I guess you could ask him, what’s a good time to have that conversation, and don’t let that momentary frustration rule your relationship!

  2. Laura K Moen

    For option #1 It might be helpful to do this in the presence of a mediator if possible – that might improve the chances of success.

  3. Maria Walker

    Fantastic recommendations – I find these will be helpful to me in some situations that I find myself in as well, thank you for the question and for the recommendations!

  4. Todd

    I am curious…if the same set of conditions exist, but, the person in question is your supervisor, how would this answer change?

  5. Frank

    Look back at what you said, you stated the two of you have very different leadership and communication styles. That could be the entire issue. Is one of you the “let’s talk it out and come to a solution,” while the other is “come up with a plan and get to the bottom line” type of person.

    Also you gave no indication of how long she has been with the company vs. how long you have. It could be the response is short because that person has “been there, done that, and it didn’t work” approach to what you are saying.

    If you were already at the company and promoted into the director position, the other person may still be seeing you as a worker bee and not responsible for setting direction. This battle is a constant struggle to overcome, especially if this other director thought someone else on your team deserved the promotion.

    Finally, could there be a cultural bias in play?

  6. Irene Money

    I’m surprised that there is no option that involves escalating one’s concerns to the toxic employee’s manager.

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