When you make a perfectly normal work-related comment or ask a necessary question to a coworker and the person snaps at you, or gets defensive, or has some other inappropriate overreaction to a normal, necessary comment, you learn to walk on eggshells around that person. But is that the right response? I would say no.
There can be several reasons for acidic snapping reactions or defensive outbursts to normal work comments. Sometimes the coworker is actually neglecting their work and the overreaction is a reflex of “protesting too much” to repel any more questions or scrutiny. Meanwhile the coworker avoids eye contact and suddenly acts very busy, or bangs a pencil down and makes irritated noises. This might be the case whether the coworker is habitually neglectful (normal work makes them feel “put upon”), or the coworker is not usually oversensitive, but is just having an off day. They act like a victim, but actually they are the perpetrators and everyone else in the office are the victims.
Sometimes it has nothing to do with the coworker’s diligence or neglect. Overreactions can stem from a personality of insecurity, which becomes expressed as defensiveness. Some people are so self-involved that every comment is misinterpreted in some self-centered way, even when it’s not about them or their work; or manipulated into a pejorative connotation to illicit sympathy or self pity. This manipulation may be conscious, or more likely, subconscious, as a defense mechanism against perceived threats from exaggerated insecurities. This is a lot more common than most people think, and it’s a deeper problem, but walking on eggshells is still not the answer. The coworker should get feedback that guides them to more appropriate workplace responses and behavior.
In this situation, like the earlier one, the “threatened” person acts like a victim, but in fact the insecure person is the perpetrator and everyone else in the office are the victims. Having insecurities does not excuse inappropriate behavior in the workplace, yet people have to deal with this phenomenon every day in many office settings.
So what’s the answer? There is no perfect way to remedy the situation. Life and work will always be more stressful when you have to interact with coworkers as described above. People who reflexively troll for sympathy by manipulating situations can sometimes be improved by having others call them on the sympathy ploy, or “answer back” firmly to the acidic defensive retorts. If you restate your work-related comment or question more positively, and remain clinically objective and impersonal (as is appropriate in an office setting), you might eventually open better communications and build better understanding with the coworker. That’s not a silver-bullet solution, just a thought after decades of seeing so many manifestations of this kind of phenomenon. All you can do is keep trying, persevere, and hope for the best. Meanwhile, though, you have to live with a certain amount of extra stress interacting with that coworker.
So why am I writing about this if I don’t have a good solution for you? Sometimes it helps to know you’re not alone in these kinds of quandaries and stressors. Most offices have one or two of the personality types described above, and the rest of us have to press on, do our best to work together, and remain productive and positive.