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How Do I Work with Difficult People?

It’s almost inevitable that you'll have to work with difficult people at some point in your career. These individuals can be challenging to collaborate with, test your patience, and sometimes make your professional life more stressful and complicated.

Despite the frustration, try to understand that working with difficult people can actually be an opportunity for personal growth. This week, we’ll explore strategies and tips for how to work with difficult people.

Practice Empathy

I know it can be hard to find empathy for someone who’s making your life more difficult, but trying to understand their perspective, motivations, and challenges can really make a difference. Get curious about your colleagues! Ask them questions not only about things relating to work, but also about who they are as a person. We never know what someone else might be going through – maybe a divorce, a family member’s (or their own) serious illness, or the loss of a loved one. Or maybe they just have a different style of communication than you’re used to. Empathy can be a powerful tool for defusing tense situations and building bridges with people you find hard to work with. Put yourself in their shoes and consider what might be causing their behavior.

Stay Calm and Professional

hands typing on a laptop keyboard

When you’re dealing with challenging coworkers, it's crucial to maintain your professionalism. Don’t lash out in anger and say something you may end up regretting. Try to stay calm and avoid getting drawn into emotional arguments or power struggles. Take a deep breath and pause, if necessary, then respond thoughtfully rather than reactively. If you react emotionally you could end up escalating the conflict. Instead, focus on the task at hand and stick to the facts. Keep your tone respectful and use assertive communication to express your concerns or disagreements.

Practice Effective Communication

Effective communication is key when dealing with difficult people. Clear, open, and honest communication can help resolve misunderstandings and prevent conflicts from escalating. Actively listen to what the other person is saying, ask clarifying questions, and provide constructive feedback when necessary. Be prepared to compromise and find common ground. Also, make sure to treat the person with respect, no matter what your personal feelings about them are. If nothing else, you’ll know that you did the right thing, even if they don’t respond in kind.

Getting Work Done When Working With Difficult People

Being respectful and professional doesn’t mean you have to let someone be disrespectful to you. Setting boundaries is essential when working with difficult people.

man in flannel using hands to talk to computer screen

If someone has treated you with disrespect at work, speak with them to clearly define what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable in your interactions. Communicate your boundaries calmly but assertively, and then enforce them if the behavior occurs again. This can help establish a more respectful and cooperative working relationship. But if the bad behavior continues, you might need to take further action.

Focus on Solutions, Not Problems

We can’t control other people’s behavior so focus on what you can control. Try avoiding this person whenever possible. If you can accomplish your work goals by collaborating with other colleagues, then do it. If you must attend the same meetings, plan your arrival so you can sit as far away as possible from them. If your job requires that you work directly with this person, try doing as much as possible through email and text messages to avoid personal interactions. That will give you time to calm down and react thoughtfully if they say something that upsets you. Also, you’ll have written documentation of your communications if there’s any confusion or conflict down the road.

Seek Mediation or Support

If conflicts persist and become unmanageable, you might need to seek mediation or support from a supervisor or Human Resources.

4 business professional meets around a conference table

Mediation can provide a neutral third party to help facilitate communication and find resolutions. Be prepared to explain the behavior and how it’s impacting you and your work. If possible, provide evidence of the behaviors you have experienced; this might include emails, text messages, or other colleagues who witnessed the behavior.

Reflect and Learn

After working with difficult people, take time to reflect on the experience. What did you learn about yourself and your communication style? What strategies were effective, and which ones need improvement? Is there anything you could have done better or differently that would have made a difference? Every challenging situation is an opportunity for personal and professional growth.

Working with difficult people is an unfortunate part of professional life, but it doesn't have to be a source of constant frustration. By developing empathy, maintaining professionalism, communicating effectively, and setting boundaries, you can navigate these challenges effectively and even learn from them. Dealing with difficult people teaches us valuable lessons about patience, adaptability, and conflict resolution. Learning how to handle working with difficult people helps us grow personally and professionally.


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