How to deal with difficult people at work

How to deal with difficult people at work

Know somebody that makes you want to pull your hair out or stamp and scream in frustration? Yep, we’ve all been there! And more than often, they’re our co-workers or our managers, and therefore, we must interact with these people every single day.

Dealing with a difficult colleague is very different from a sibling or significant other  – and it can be tricky. It requires tact, patience, listening skills and understanding.

In this blog post, we’ll dish out some of our top tips on how to deal with difficult people at work so you can remain in control and navigate challenging circumstances.

#1 – Control the engagement

The age-old adage, ‘prevention is always better than cure’ applies here, but clearly setting boundaries with problematic colleagues will usually prevent problems from arising further down the line.

For instance, if your co-worker has a habit of doing something that frustrates you, such as making inappropriate comments or talking over you in meetings, ask to speak to them privately and discuss the issue at hand.

Be open, honest and direct, without being angry or upset and emphasise how their behaviour has made you feel. Chances are, the person in question won’t have realised what they were doing was causing you distress and apologise on the spot; solving the problem immediately.

#2 – Remain calm

Keeping a cool head is instrumental in these sorts of situations. Getting angry, shouting, ranting or raving won’t improve or change the problem. You might feel better for having stood your ground, but it will do little to help in the long run.

Instead, it would be wise to learn lessons from The Chimp Paradox, the bestselling self-help book by Professor Steve Peters. It discusses the rationale and techniques for training your ‘chimp’, the emotional centre of your brain.

It teaches you cannot fight your impulses, as the chimp –  responsible for feelings and urges – is too powerful, and instead, you should try to work with your chimp to make sense of what it is feeling, in tandem with the logical part of your mind.

Engage the analytical side of your mind, by taking a moment to count to ten when faced with a difficult situation. Try and take emotional sting out of confrontation by weighing up your emotions and whether it is appropriate to feel the way you do immediately about the situation.

#3 – Understand their issues

Empathy is a powerful weapon for those seeking to deal with difficult people at work. With an understanding of why your difficult colleague is behaving the way they are, you’ll be able to takes steps to diffuse the problems you have.

So, put yourself in the aggressor’s shoes. What point are they trying to make? What is their aggression trying to achieve? If you’re engaging with someone in a face-to-face setting you can use these active listening techniques to help understand their issues:

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Mirror their body language
  • Clarify any queries
  • Summarise their main points at the end of the discussion

An instrumental part of diffusing any argument is to listen to the aggressor intently. Instead of getting emotional and feeling like you’re on the defensive, and reacting to anger with more anger, engage the logical part of your brain and empathise. You never know, you might have been the source of the problem in the initial instance!

#4 – Consider different approaches

Is the problematic person just ‘different’ to you? Your team is likely to comprise of a mixture of personalities, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You might have a ‘doer’, someone who is simply impatient, doesn’t want any discussion and just wants to get things done. Perhaps you’ve got an ideas person, who is constantly pushing the boundaries of what they can and can’t do

Either way, perhaps the person that’s causing you problems at work is simply someone you don’t understand because they’re different to you?

Just because you disagree on something, it doesn’t mean things must be ‘difficult’ with this person. In fact, contrasting approaches might just be what your team needs, so you can get the best out of one-another.

Monitor this person closely. How does their approach vary with yours? Are they detail-orientated? Or does this person value structure? Identify what you think resonates with them and adjust your style as you communicate with them. For instance, sharing ideas and thoughts with a creative person will breed acceptance.

#5 – Get outside help

In especially difficult situations, where you feel you aren’t adequately equipped to deal with the problem at hand, speak to friends, colleagues or managers. It is inevitable that you will know someone who has experienced something similar in their career at some stage.

They’ll be able to offer a different take on the situation, free of emotional bias. They may have had a similar experience themselves and be able to offer tips and advice you might not have considered.

#6 –  Consider escalating the matter

If you’ve followed all the tips above, and you still haven’t managed to resolve the matter, you should speak to your manager.

Your manager will be able to advise you on what you need to do, and if necessary, they’ll be able to mediate between yourself and the person that’s causing you difficulty. If the person you have a problem with is your line manager, try speaking to their boss.

Try to avoid using this option all the time. It’s important you learn how to tackle challenging situations yourself, to develop the soft skills required. It’s also best practice, where appropriate, to at least try to handle a difficult situation with a problematic colleague before getting management involved.

Share your tips below

Most of the time, difficult people at work are misunderstood. Workplaces are strange environments, where sometimes, communication between peers can become muddled and confused, and therefore, misunderstandings can happen.

By following these tips, you should be able to resolve problematic situations amicably and build a worthwhile relationship with your colleagues.

Got any tips you’d like to share? Send us a message on our Twitter account or contact form and let us know!