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How to Deal With Difficult People at Work

Author: Dave Rietsema - Matchr CEO

No matter what industry you work in, you’re bound to work with at least one difficult person sooner or later. That difficult person could be a customer, a coworker, or even a manager. When it happens, it helps to be prepared on how to work with difficult people

While the exact method for dealing difficult coworkers may vary slightly depending on their position and the specific issues at hand, there are some general strategies that can be applied to most situations with difficult personalities.

Why Should You Deal With Difficult People at Work?

For many employees, especially those who prefer to avoid confrontation, it may seem preferable to sweep an interpersonal problem at work under the rug. While it’s easier to deal with a person’s problematic behavior when it impacts multiple employees around the office, it can feel more challenging to confront a person whose behavior is an attack on you — whether they belittle your contributions to the workplace or criticize you for personal reasons.

These negative workplace relations must be dealt with to preserve healthy workplace morale. If you have a problem with someone in your work environment, it can bubble to the surface during team training, activities, or relations with clients. This, in turn, can lead to confrontations that damage the company’s reputation and/or the company’s ability to collaborate effectively. Those who are unable to settle differences like a mature professional may also be considered difficult to work with and lose their job as a result.

But how do you deal with difficult coworkers?

Tips for Dealing With Difficult People at Work

You’re not the first one to ever have a problem with a fellow coworker or client. Here, we outline some of the proven best solutions for dealing with difficult employees or others who are hostile and problematic at work.

1. Do a self-check to see if you’re the problem.

If this is the first time you’ve had issues with a particular person at work, you may want to take a step back and examine your own actions first to make sure that you aren’t the problem. Consider whether or not you may have overreacted to a comment or an action. Was it directed at you to intentionally create conflict, or is it possible that you may have misconstrued the person’s meaning and intentions or read too deeply into it? 

Before escalating the situation, make sure that your negative interactions are consistent patterns with the same person and not one-offs. Think back to consider your actions leading up to the comment or action to be sure you didn’t instigate the situation. 

2. Discuss the problem with someone you trust.

There’s no professional rule that you have to deal with difficult people by yourself. Whether you bring up the problem to a manager, a coworker, or a friend, you can glean valuable insights by hearing another person’s perspective. Take a tactful approach rather than being aggressive, and come ready to brainstorm rather than talk trash, so that your conversation is conducive to solutions and not anger. 

In bringing your issue to another person, be prepared for answers that you may not like. Your manager may consider you to be the problem, for example, so be prepared to humble yourself in response to what others may say.  

3. Ask the difficult person to have a constructive conversation with you in private.

Once you’ve sought advice from others and feel ready to tackle the conflict head-on, ask the person to have a discussion with you in private. In this discussion, explain what you’re feeling without using too many “you” messages. (For example, you could say, “I feel that there might be some tension between us,” rather than, “You’ve created some tension between us.”) 

Give examples of what’s causing your hurt or frustration, but stick to one or two examples so as not to come across as attacking. The person may not even be aware that they’re making you feel a certain way, so don’t expect the worst from them. From here, you and the other person can talk about ways in which similar situations can be avoided in the future.

4. Stay calm and focused.

Difficult people can easily derail even the most reasonable and even-tempered employees, but flying off the handle never improves the situation. By staying calm and focused on the task at hand, you may help to defuse the situation and calm the difficult person down. Take deep breaths when you feel frustrated and remind the other person that you want to peacefully coexist with them as needed. 

5. Try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Being yelled at or spoken to gruffly triggers a natural defensive instinct. But allowing this reaction to dictate the situation can cause escalation and make it difficult to remain productive. Being compassionate and trying to understand where the other person is coming from may help you to determine how best to approach the issue at hand. Find out why they acted in the manner they did, and you may find yourself better able to keep a level head and reach an understanding sooner.

6. Act with respect.

Maintaining a respectful attitude towards a difficult customer or coworker can be difficult when it feels like the person is directly attacking you, but being disrespectful can aggravate the person. By adding fuel to the fire, you may also find yourself being penalized and taking some of the blame. Maintaining respect for the person will help keep the situation civil and may make it easier to repair the relationship later on.

7. Use humor in the discussion to ease the tension.

Conflict is almost always uncomfortable, which is why you should deal with it in the way that works best for you. For many, making light of the conversation can defuse tension and awkwardness that accompanies serious conversations. You don’t have to be funny the entire time, but cracking a joke midway through your discussion can make it feel lighter and easier to get through. 

8. Help the other person empathize with you.

Explaining where you are coming from can make a world of difference in some situations. In some cases, people that seem difficult may be giving resistance because they feel that you are being difficult. Working through a situation can help both you and the other person to understand where one another are coming from.

9. Focus on what you want to achieve rather than what has happened.

In many cases, people can become fixated on defending their previous actions and end up arguing over the validity of each other’s argument. Avoid this at all costs and instead focus on finding a positive solution. This can help to deflate a situation by removing the stress component. Difficult people are often really just stressed out or frustrated people, so helping them to resolve the source of that stress can put the focus where it belongs instead of on you.

10. Follow up on the conversation by measuring your progress with the difficult person.

Just as all other goals need to be measured and revisited, your hard conversation also needs followup. Schedule a time to talk to the difficult person after your initial conversation and determine whether things have gotten better, worse, or stayed the same since then. At this point, you can ask yourselves why things haven’t improved, if they’re willing to continue working with you toward a peaceful resolution, and revise your plan for building a better relationship.

What If Nothing Seems to Help?

These tips on how to deal with difficult coworkers will help most people sort out their differences, but some difficult people simply don’t care how they make others feel and are unwilling to change themselves to accommodate those they work with. In a worst-case scenario like this, you have several options:

1. Be the bigger person and ignore them.

If you feel that the difficult person doesn’t interfere with your ability to work or your job satisfaction, you may choose to ignore them. This tactic isn’t recommended because it allows poor behavior to persist. It should only be used if your personalities simply don’t mesh and your conflict is not a result of bullying from the other person.

2. Escalate the situation to management.

Turning to upper management for help with a difficult person at work should be one of the last things you do. But in worst-case scenarios, managers become the only people who can facilitate real change. They have the authority to implement performance improvement plans, offer alternative solutions, and fire the difficult person if they are unwilling to change. It’s not fun when this happens, but at least work can be enjoyable for you once again.

3. Separate yourself from the difficult person.

If none of the solutions above help, it may be helpful to physically distance yourself from the difficult person. This may mean changing desks, moving to a different office location, handing-off a project to someone else, working in a different department, alternating your work schedules, or, if worse comes to worst, getting a new job. 

As you follow these tips, you’ll discover that it becomes more pleasant to come into work each day and might even find yourself using these tips to relate to all of your coworkers — not just the difficult ones.

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