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How to Deal With Difficult People at Work

5 Tips for Dealing With Difficult People

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Man in a headlock with coworker

Difficult People Exist in Every Workplace

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These are ten productive ways to deal with your difficult coworker. Let's start with the first five.

  • Start out by examining yourself. Are you sure that the other person is really the problem and that you're not overreacting? Have you always experienced difficulty with the same type of person or actions? Does a pattern exist for you in your interaction with coworkers? Do you recognize that you have hot buttons that are easily pushed? (We all do, you know.) Always start with self-examination to determine that the object of your attention really is a difficult person’s actions.

  • Explore what you are experiencing with a trusted friend or colleague. Brainstorm ways to address the situation. When you are the object of an attack, or your boss appears to support the dysfunctional actions of a coworker, it is often difficult to objectively assess your options. Anger, pain, humiliation, fear and concern about making the situation worse are legitimate emotions.

    Pay attention to the unspoken agreement you create when you solicit another’s assistance. You are committing to act unless you agree actions will only hurt the situation. Otherwise, you risk becoming a whiner or complainer in the eyes of your colleague.

  • Approach the person with whom you are having the problem for a private discussion. Talk to the coworker about what you are experiencing in “I” messages. (Using “I” messages is a communication approach that focuses on your experience of the situation rather than on attacking or accusing the other person.) You can also explain to your coworker the impact of their actions on you.

    Be pleasant and agreeable as you talk with the other person. They may not be aware of the impact of their words or actions on you. They may be learning about their impact on you for the first time. Or, they may have to consider and confront a pattern in their own interaction with people. Worst case? They may know their impact on you and deny it or try to explain it away. Unfortunately, some difficult people just don’t care. During the discussion, attempt to reach agreement about positive and supportive actions going forward.

  • Follow up after the initial discussion. Has the behavior changed? Gotten better? Or worse? Determine whether a follow-up discussion is needed. Determine whether a follow-up discussion will have any impact. Decide if you want to continue to confront the difficult person by yourself. Become a peacemaker. (Decide how badly you want to make peace with the other person and how much you want your current job. Determine whether you have experienced a pattern of support from your boss.) If you answer, “yes,” to these questions, hold another discussion. If not, escalate and move to the next idea.

  • You can confront your difficult coworker’s behavior publicly. Deal with the person with gentle humor or slight sarcasm. Or, make an exaggerated physical gesture – no, not that one – such as a salute or place your hand over your heart to indicate a serious wounding.

    You can also tell the difficult person that you’d like them to consider important history in their decision making or similar words expressed positively, depending on the subject. Direct confrontation does work well for some people in some situations. I don’t think it works to ask the person to stop doing what they’re doing, publicly, but you can employ more positive confrontational tactics. Their success for you will depend on your ability to pull them off. Each of us is not spur-of-the-moment funny, but if you are, you can use the humor well with difficult coworkers.
Want five more tips? Fleeing is definitely an option.
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