Nine Tips for Dealing with Difficult People at Work
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published in ASAP
by Nancy Schnoebelen Imbs

We’ve all been there, and we know the type. They’re the ones who know how to push our buttons. Nothing ever is good enough for them. They add stress to our lives. They make our job a little less enjoyable. They’re, well, just plain difficult.

Unfortunately, difficult people exist in all workplaces, and it’s rare for everyone to agree about everything all the time. It’s human nature. Learning how to manage our interactions with challenging individuals so it doesn’t affect our well-being, harm work relationships or even worse we don’t’ develop a reputation ourselves of being difficult to deal with are critical to our integrity and career success.

Human behavior flows from three main sources:
desire, emotion and knowledge.
– Plato

By learning skills to manage conflict, we can approach difficult personalities with confidence that keep our professional (and personal) relationships healthy and strong.

When dealing with difficult people, a useful technique is to find something you like about him/her. Perhaps he/she offers good insight in meetings, they’re punctual, they meet deadlines, or they bring great lunches…whatever it is find something you can connect to in a positive way. This can help gain resolution and reset the tone when faced with that nerve-wracking interaction.

Here’s eight additional tips to equip yourself when dealing with difficult people.

  1. Remain Calm. Leverage your self-regulation skills. When you find yourself about to exhibit the same difficult behavior as your co-worker, above all else, remain calm. Keep a low, calm, even monotone voice. Take deep breaths or excuse yourself for a moment to collect your thoughts. You might even ask to continue the conversation later so you both can cool down.
  2. Build Rapport. This may sound counterintuitive, but if you look for ways to build a connection, over time your interactions with that “difficult” person may not be so difficult. Approach him/her with a pleasant attitude, indulge in small talk, congratulate them on their latest successful business project. By making that extra effort, you’ll gain ground and ultimately a better working relationship.
  3. Show Respect. It’s difficult to be respectful when the person is acting unprofessional and like a bully but being defensive or showing contempt will not help matters. It will only make the situation and your relationship worse. Remember the Golden Rule and keep respect at the forefront.
  4. Take the High Road. If the conversation starts to get heated, avoid mirroring the behavior. You don’t want to add fuel to a potentially combustible situation, which often leads to regret. Keep your professionalism intact and don’t let him/her get the best of you.
  5. Listen. Avoid talking over the person. Let him/her convey the message without interrupting. This will allow you to better understand the issue. You can then take what you’ve learned from the communication and probe deeper into the concern by asking questions so you’re getting the full picture. When you’re actively listening, you can better understand the root of the message.
  6. Watch Your Body Language. Your body language speaks volumes. By nodding and maintaining eye contact, you’re displaying positive body language, which shows you’re listening and respect what he/ she has to say. Folding your arms across your chest or rolling your eyes convey negative messages and can create added difficulty. Be careful about smiling. Yes, it expresses kindness, but depending on the context of what’s being said, it may be perceived as condescending.
  7. Empathize. Empathy is said to be the cornerstone of leadership. “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care,” (by Teddy Roosevelt), speaks to the importance of empathy and means you’re able to ‘walk in their shoes” as well as understand how his/her emotions affect their needs. This has nothing to do with whether you agree or disagree with them. When displaying empathy, you can appreciate what he/she is going through.
  8. Don’t Take It Personally. Above all, recognize you’re not the cause of someone else’s demeanor. Think about why he/she is always unhappy and if you should put so much mental and emotional energy around him/her. Don’t dwell on the latest difficult encounter. Rather, learn to let things go and focus on your work and your commitment to success.