angry man shouting into phone

How to Productively Deal with Difficult People at Work

After more than a decade working in 14 workplaces in 2 countries, I’ve learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t in dealing with difficult people at work.

It doesn’t matter how smart or skilled you are if you can’t work as part of a team. Unfortunately, difficult people are everywhere and are almost impossible to avoid.

Fortunately, you can vastly improve your work environment by learning how to manage challenging coworkers, bosses and clients by following these proven principles.

Avoid reacting to the situation. Stay aware of your emotions.

This is the most fundamental step in dealing with difficult people. Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into someone else’s drama. But you can’t stop yourself from reacting if you don’t realize when it is happening.

Use the S.T.O.P model to be more self-aware of your feelings.

S.T.O.P stands for:

  • Stop whatever you are doing
  • Take 3 deep breaths
  • Observe how you are feeling
  • Proceed with dignity and compassion

Another model that you can use is P.L.A.C.E.

P.L.A.C.E stands for:

  • Pause what you are doing
  • Label you reaction
  • Ask yourself why you feel this way
  • Choose a skillful response
  • Empower yourself

Read more about the P.L.A.C.E model and how you can implement it.

Assess the situation objectively

Sometimes we might think a colleague is out to get us but are they really? More likely, their behavior has nothing to do with us personally.

If you think that they are definitely singling you out, are you making things worse for yourself?

I have started on the wrong foot with colleagues plenty of times and when someone senses that you don’t like them, they often don’t like you back. As a result, they might treat you worse than they do others.

Don’t take it personally

When someone doesn’t treat you well, it’s easy to take their behavior personally or to think that it’s your fault that they are behaving badly. This can be emotionally draining and an unnecessary burden.

Remember, when someone behaves poorly, it reflects badly on themselves and has nothing to do with you.

Learn how to stop taking things personally from Psychology Today.

Be empathetic

No one is difficult for the sake of being difficult. There is always an underlying reason that is motivating them to behave badly. And more often than not, it has nothing to do with you.

At one of the departments I worked in, a colleague was being very disagreeable and was causing a lot of frustration among team members. But one of us found out that she was going through a difficult divorce. It gave the rest of us insight into why she was so miserable and allowed us to cut her some slack.

Discuss your concerns with another colleague or your boss

There is a good chance that this problematic colleague of yours is also a pain in the backside to others in your team. Discussing the issue with other team members will enable you to see the big picture. They can offer a different take on the situation and might have invaluable advice to give you.

It’s also good to involve others (especially your boss) before you try to tackle the situation yourself just in case it all goes pear-shaped. You definitely want your boss in your corner if shit hits the fan.

Have a private chat with the offending person

If your boss and other colleagues agree that you are not imagining things and are supportive of you having a discussion with this difficult person, it’s time to bite the bullet.

Confronting a colleague (or anyone for that matter) is never easy but is needed to avoid the problem from continuing and escalating. This is where you make use of  all your awesome inter-personal skills.

Here are some tips on how to have this difficult conversation:

  • Be polite and professional in your communication. No matter how badly the other person is behaving, showing contempt, getting upset or behaving as badly as them will not help the situation.
  • Use “I” rather than “you” sentences to focus the discussion on your experience rather than on blaming the other person.
  • Focus on one main issue that affects you the most. Do not go into a rant about every little thing that person does that irks you.
  • Don’t demand. Don’t insist they change their behavior (if you’ve ever had a nagging mom, you know demanding never works). Instead, allow them to vent and feel heard before suggesting ways to improve the situation.
  • Listen. If they are willing to talk, listen closely to the reasons that motivated their bad behavior. Remember what I said about being empathetic; put yourself in their shoes to understand where they are coming from.
  • Focus your solution on a win-win strategy. Make sure the other person is clear about the benefits they stand to gain from their behavior change. This will motivate them to make changes.

Follow up after the initial discussion

If there has been no change in your colleague’s behavior after ‘the talk’, consider having another discussion to see what else you can do to help facilitate their behavior change.

If there has been an improvement, no matter how small, it’s worth giving them positive feedback and encouragement to motivate further efforts at changing.

Ignore and avoid if possible

If you have already tried talking to this challenging colleague (pain in the bum) a few times and there has been no change, the best way forward might be to ignore and avoid if possible.

Life is too short to waste precious time and energy trying to make somebody see the light when they don’t want to.

Escalate up the ladder

Sometimes it’s not possible to ignore or avoid. Sometimes you might need to continue working closely with this person even if there isn’t a healthy work relationship. In this case, you will need to escalate the situation to your boss. Try not to do this too often as you might give your boss the impression that you can’t manage difficult situations.

If you are planning to escalate to your boss, make sure you’ve done your prep. Here are some tips:

  • Present the problem as something that affects productivity and effective teamwork, not as a personal issue.
  • Be specific and factual. Make sure you stick to what has actually happened (supported by evidence if possible). Don’t add in feelings, presumptions and assumptions.
  • Have a plan of action ready to suggest to your boss. This shows them that you are not just doing a dump on them but have given the issue lots of thought.
  • Garner the support of other team members if they have also been affected by the same behavior.

Watch this informative TED talk by Jay Johnson, a trainer specializing in communication and leadership development, for more tips on dealing with difficult people.

To wrap up

We can’t change difficult people. But we can change how we respond to them. These principles are effective in dealing with most difficult situations but every situation is unique and may require alternative approaches.

Regardless of the outcome of your handling of the situation, make sure you practice good self-care, have clear boundaries and give yourself credit for trying to handle a challenging situation.

At the end of the day, stepping up and choosing to deal with difficult people empathetically can only make you a better person.

If you found this article helpful, share it with family and friends. Who knows? it might help someone in strife.



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