I work in a shelter and the other day my coworker and a client got into a protracted, heated exchange. The client suffers from some paranoia and delusions (mild) so cannot really be counted on to respond reasonably. The coworker felt disrespected because the client wasn't complying with their requests (they didn't involve safety issues or being disruptive to other clients though).

After a long shift, the client said something mildly snotty and my coworker got very confrontational about not being respected and they had a series of short arguments over the last 45 minutes of work which made me pretty uncomfortable.

I would like to suggest to my coworker that they "shouldn't" engage like that with a client because they are just escalating each other. They "should" just brush it off. I use quotes because someone told me that telling someone they "should" do something is contrary to the principles of nonviolent communication and I want to highlight that I want to avoid that word when we talk.

It was sort of one of those situations where my coworker wanted to be right more than they wanted to have a good outcome. We work closely together but I am fairly new, so we don't have a strong relationship yet.

How can I approach my coworker about this, using non-violent communication techniques?

2 Answers 2


There is a huge difference between these:

You shouldn't engage with Joe like that; it's just pointless

You shouldn't engage with Joe like that; it just escalates and you ramp each other up

I've noticed when you engage with Joe like that it just escalates and you ramp each other up - that's no fun, eh?

The middle one is better than the first, but when you refuse yourself access to words like "should" and "shouldn't" you force yourself to provide the details that the middle one includes. What's more, it leaves the conclusion for your coworker to draw instead of drawing it for them.

If your coworker doesn't want to talk about this with you, the "I noticed" structure lets them just nod or shrug and doesn't oblige them to argue with you or defend their actions. You're just commiserating.

I work in several groups where I have no authority, only persuasion. A handy rule like "don't say should" is a good way to keep my communication more productive, and I get more people doing what I want that way. Especially with someone who would argue about respect with a client of a homeless shelter: they're pretty darn likely to argue with you too, and I expect you don't want that.

  • 3
    This phrase was helpful to me: "If your coworker doesn't want to talk about this with you, the "I noticed" structure lets them just nod or shrug ". I realized I had already made my point right after the argument occurred. It's just that my co-worker didn't respond the way I wanted ("Oh, you're so right!" was what I was expecting? haha). So I realized I did what I could and there wouldn't be any point in bringing it up again. Thanks!
    – figures
    Apr 16, 2022 at 7:16

I would definitely not engage in a "should" talk with a coworker. I've seen only failures when it comes to such discussions. It looks, at best, as bossy or patronizing, people get angry, and it leads to a dead-end and future bad relationship. In my experience, whenever I had to talk to a colleague about behavior that was bothering me, I always kept it informal, neutral, and informative. And, more than anything, about me, my concerns, and using the "I" statement.

Don't point fingers. Don't give unsolicited advice. Explain why you talk to him and what you're asking for. Let him catch/understand the underlying things if/when any. I once had some people having small talks right behind my desk, and it was annoying. Same as the loudest voices in an open space or the argument between the client and your colleague you suffered from.

I kindly ask them to tune down, or move a few feet away. My point was: "please guys, it's too loud, and I can't concentrate/answer the phone right now, could you please move a little? Thanks." There's no real difference between your case and what happened here: 1. the noise was annoying 2. the argument was even more (for you). It made you feel uncomfortable, and you can communicate about that, it's a good starting point.

Keep your explanation and your request to point #1 level, and communicate about the discomfort of a 45-minutes rant/argument. If your colleague (and I bet he will!) brings the topic of the client and his attitude, then, maybe, carefully, you can make your point about not arguing?

But be careful, you're walking on eggs here. You're not his supervisor or his boss. So, maybe just listing some good points about handling such a customer can be useful and seen as a friendly help. It must be in an indirect way, with the ability to back up if you feel like he might be upset. I once had a very interesting training about how we could handle unhappy customers, and you can talk to him about that. Nothing personal, it's a help provided by your company when it exists, and it's really helpful.

There are many ways to softly bring the topic, it's up to your personality and your colleague's, and what you know of each other. Choose the right time and words, that's all.

Background/experience about the topic if it may help you, as they use a similar technique: handling customers and handling coworker's noise

  • 1
    This was very helpful too. As my comment on the Kate Gregory's answer implies, I was really asking the wrong question. I had brought it up, and I should have asked how do I make my co-worker enthusiastically acknowledge my wisdom <- being sarcastic here :-). Thank you for your considered response. I will reread this the next time I am tempted to advise.
    – figures
    Apr 16, 2022 at 7:20

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