What You Can Do About It

Too often, work stress and burnout involve problems with coworkers, and problems will arise from time to time wherever people are working together. Although “difficult” is indeed in the eye of the beholder, whether someone’s behavior imposes petty annoyances or deliberately sabotages your efforts and energy, this person can make life at work stressful and unpleasant. How you handle these interactions will depend on a number of factors including how often you encounter difficult people, how closely you have to work with them, the types of behavior they present, your flexibility and sense of humor, and the mobility and options you believe you have within the system.

Even if you find that lately you can’t seem to talk about one particular colleague without using the word “idiot” in the same sentence, there are things you can do to avoid the inevitable frustration or resentment that a difficult coworker can inspire. Although there is much in interactions with others that will be outside your control, here are some things you can do to minimize the potential for problems at work.

Consider: Is It Really Any of Your Business?

Not every challenge deserves our time and attention, so consider whether you even need to become involved. If you work with others, there will surely be some who work differently than you, people whose personality, preferences, and politics will be significantly different from yours. And while at times you may find the differences irritating (or even personally offensive), your involvement is not called for unless these differences keep you from doing your job.

Dealing with difficult colleaguesFor example, if I listen to music all day, as long as you can’t hear it, my musical preferences (or even my need for constant auditory input) are none of your business. If I skip a procedure that you would never overlook, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work or ultimately compromise the organization, you probably don’t need to bring it up. However, if I want to chat when you need to concentrate, if my perfume is disturbing your respiratory functioning, or if my work habits will eventually end up creating more work for you, we need to talk.

Don’t Take it Personally

It’s hard to be objective when someone has interrupted your train of thought, exhausted the supplies you needed, or complained for the 10th time about something she has no intention of changing. But these events probably have nothing to do with you. Goethe said, “Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness.”

It will be much easier on your mental health to imagine that most oversights come from forgetfulness, indifference, narcissism, unresolved control issues, or incompetence than to believe that someone is trying to hurt you. You don’t need to rationalize hurtful behavior (or even understand it) and you can respond in the same self-caring ways regardless of the other person’s intent. For your own sanity, try to assume it’s not deliberate, even when it is.

Think Ahead

Dealing with Difficult ColleaguesGenerally speaking, the best way to resolve a problem is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. The better you can anticipate your own needs in any situation, the better prepared you will be to prevent potential problems that might arise. Consider the constraints that might be likely to trip you up. Identify the resources you’ll need and the most likely sources of support.

Whether in day-to-day functioning or in anticipation of instituting a change or trying something new, plan ahead and think through as many details as possible, creating as clear a picture of what you’ll need before something becomes problematic, or before an existing problem gets worse.

Think of Others

Anticipation and simple courtesy can help avoid problems arising from assumptions that no one has conflicting needs, or that no one cares. Ask your colleagues ahead of time for input on plans or changes that might affect them (or at least let them know that these things will be happening so that they can plan for them). Consistently modeling respect in your relationships could even help your colleagues become more considerate of how you might be affected by their plans and the choices they make.

Watch the tendency to assume that others know—or should know—what you want. We are all products of individual experiences and what’s important to you may not even be coming up on another person’s radar. (Self-righteousness may feel good for a time, but it’s not much of a relationship builder.)

Learn to Ask for What You Want

When something comes up, be direct. Many people dance around a problem, never getting close enough to actually resolve it. One of the most important skills in human interactions—if not the scarcest—is the ability to ask for what we want, and to do so without attacking or making anyone wrong. Our culture provides few models for a direct approach, so instead we see a lot of complaining, manipulating, triangulation, and passive-aggressive behavior, any of which can add a great deal of stress to relationships.

Fear of anger (“He’ll have a fit.”) or disapproval (“She won’t like me.”) makes for some rather convoluted and dysfunctional interaction patterns. If you want me to continue my conversation away from your office, for example, ask me. Something as simple as “Could you guys go chat down the hall, please” can elicit consideration and cooperation, not just now but in the future as well.

On the other hand, sitting and stewing over what an inconsiderate person I am won’t get you what you want. (Even the most hypervigilant person probably isn’t as good a mind-reader as you’ll need in this situation.) Blowing up at me might get me to move, but even if it doesn’t bring out my defensiveness, justification, or a counterattack, it’ll cost you down the line, if only in terms of my ability to trust you in the future. Likewise, telling me about it a week later, long after I can do anything about it, can also erode trust and respect. And I don’t need to know how my behavior makes you feel or what issues it brings up for you. Seriously. Just ask for what you want.

Believe in Your Own Power

Many indirect approaches mask a belief system that excludes the perception that we actually have the ability to change things. Successful relationships require a belief in our power to influence our lives and interactions. (A “why-bother” approach is an adequate response only as long as you can live with the consequences of not bothering—quietly and happily.)

A more constructive alternative involves taking responsibility for meeting your own needs while considering the needs of the other person: “I think we have a problem. I signed up to use the room this afternoon. I won’t have another opportunity to run this meeting and we can’t really do this anywhere else. Is there some way we can work this out?” You identify the problem, giving your coworker additional information in a way that puts you both in a position to negotiate.

If the other person has any flexibility, especially if you have a history of cooperation and mutual respect with this individual, you’ll probably get the room (or arrive at an alternative solution you might not have otherwise considered). Even if you don’t get the resolution you like, you probably won’t burn any bridges either. A positive result is more likely when you believe in your ability to achieve it.

Watch Your Issues

Dealing with Difficult ColleaguesOur professional self-concept can be rather fragile at times. If most of our experiences with authority figures have been critical or negative, we have years of practice judging ourselves against other people’s standards and reactions. If approval from others is a high priority, we become extremely vulnerable to the coworker who doesn’t sanction our methods, the client who would rather work with one of our colleagues, or the associate who always seems to be weeks ahead on his paperwork. Learning to hear, respect, and operate from our own internal guidance, vision, or priorities promises a great deal of freedom; however, it requires a certain amount of faith in what drives us, as well as a commitment to internal congruence to enable us to stand our ground.

In the face of criticism or disapproval, sometimes the best way to avoid a potential conflict is to simply agree with the other person. Watch what happens when you respond to a disparaging remark by saying something like, “You could be right,” “No kidding,” or, “I appreciate your concern,” and then changing the subject or walking away, which communicates that you don’t care to discuss the issue further. No need to explain or defend!

Note that we’re talking about criticism and put-downs, not reasonable requests to cooperate. There’s a difference between, “Please return the file on this particular client,” and “How do you ever find anything in this mess?” (Remember, many people are more comfortable attacking than they are asking for what they want.) The point here is to not get hooked emotionally, to whatever degree that is possible, and respectfully disengage.

Validate Their Reality

If a colleague approaches you in a state of emotional overload, his body is probably filled with stress hormones and locked into a fight-or-flight response which, neurologically, doesn’t allow easy access to the more rational parts of his brain. Your defensiveness or impulse to fight back, as natural as that may be given the situation, is likely to escalate his meltdown and make it even harder for him to see a more reasonable point of view, much less work toward a satisfying resolution.

But imagine if you counter his diatribe with compassion and understanding: “Well of course you’re upset about that!” Communicating agreement may be one of the most disarming and powerful strategies you can employ in a stressful situation. (This technique can be especially valuable in dealing with someone who is sent to you, for example, someone working with you who doesn’t want to be there.)

The better able you are to validate the reality of the other person’s experience—even if that reality is unreasonable or incomprehensible to you—the more quickly he can let go of his attachment to his hurt or angry feelings.

Set a Boundary

If you feel yourself getting upset or reactive, or if the other person’s behavior has escalated to a level of disrespect for which you are not prepared—here in particular, by the way, perception is everything—it is entirely appropriate to set a boundary to let that person know under what conditions he can continue this discussion: “I can see you’re upset about this. I want to hear what you have to say when you can talk to me without yelling. Let’s try this again in a few minutes.” And walk away. You don’t need to criticize him or make him wrong to communicate what he needs to do differently for this conversation to continue. (Clearly if he’s so agitated that he appears threatening or dangerous, insist on intervention, leave the room, or call for help.)

Fine-tune Your Discernment Skills

If someone comes to you for help and you have the information, time, and inclination, by all means share what you’ve got. But you’ve probably noticed that people are generally resistant to suggestions that require major changes in their belief systems or behaviors until they are either curious or dissatisfied enough to be receptive to this information.

Dealing with Difficult ColleaguesPeople invested in not changing, either because they firmly believe in what they’re doing or because they aren’t ready to question beliefs they’ve always held, will certainly see your best intentions to help as controlling and invasive. Until they are open to the possibility of doing things differently, even the most inquisitive will simply be looking for an opportunity to vent or complain. (You’ll be able to tell when this happens by how often they counter your suggestions with “Yeah, but . . .”). Further, your assistance may not be welcome, even when it’s requested, if your response is not the one the other person wants to hear.

Any of these situations can exhaust your energy, intentions, and good will. It may be more effective, when people are resistant to change or can’t take in the information you’re giving them, to accept where they are in their process and validate their reality. Watch where you devote your time and energy. Healthy interdependence requires boundaries and self-care, and often the best way to help someone move forward is simply to move forward yourself.

Don’t Engage in Toxicity

As much as possible, avoid or minimize your exposure to negative people, information, or influences. Even in a positive and supportive environment, this can be tough! Any person or experience can have an impact on your energy.  On days that you find watching the news or reading the paper to be devastating, switch channels or turn to the comics. Read or listen to inspirational material, either exclusively or in between more disquieting matter. Watch for that sense of obligation to spend time with people who are toxic and exhausting for you, even if they care about you, need you to be there for them, or happen to be related to you.

Steer clear of gossip, even if it’s about you. (“That’s none of my business,” is a useful response here. Be sure to change the subject or simply walk away.) Learn to say no, even at the risk of rejection or criticism. (Do you really want toxic people actively involved in your life? Sometimes being rejected or abandoned is actually not a bad thing!)

Reaching Out

Dealing with Difficult ColleaguesWhen unable to resolve a conflict to your satisfaction, you may need to involve arbitration. Unfortunately, when you turn a problem over to someone else, you almost always turn over the responsibility for a solution to that person as well. The advantage is that the third party can usually see things more clearly and objectively and may suggest options that didn’t occur to either party. The disadvantage is that a mediator may solve the problem as quickly and conveniently as possible, or in accordance with his or her own agenda. There is always the chance that the third party will make things worse, so select your arbitrator cautiously.

Cut Your Losses

When our jobs—for whatever reasons—become a stressful bundle of obstacles and conflicts, we may need to reevaluate if the payoffs and benefits are worth the negative aspects of the work. We all grow and change, and there are times to let go of an unrewarding friendship, relationship, or job.

If you are unable to pack it in immediately, one of the most powerful behaviors you can engage in for your own self-protection is the conscious act of exploring your options. Consciously choosing to stay in a situation in which you are well aware of the challenges, lack of support, or other, more negative realities can eliminate constant disappointment and an exhausting sense of being victimized. Sometimes it can help to consider that you’re not trapped—you’re just not ready to make the move to a more satisfying alternative yet.

Believe in Your Own Deservingness

Self-care starts with a belief in its legitimacy. Of all the ingredients of healthy and positive relationships, this is perhaps the most important. Lacking an ability to take care of ourselves will inevitably compromise the quality of any relationship. Self-care reduces the chances that we will feel resentful, self-righteous, or disempowered—feelings which often result from self-sacrifice—and enhances the quality of what we have to offer to others.

Dealing with Difficult ColleaguesUntil we believe we deserve to be treated with respect, for example, modeling self-respect and maintaining boundaries with others will certainly be quite difficult. And it’s equally challenging to effectively help others to make self-caring choices if we have a hard time appreciating what we see in the mirror or making constructive choices in our own behalf.

Give a Little

Finally, look for opportunities to support others. As negative and emotionally stingy as our work culture can be, you probably know very few people who complain about getting too much recognition or appreciation. Even if you’re doing fantastic work in an unusually positive environment, it’s likely that you don’t get many strokes from your colleagues or supervisors (who, incidentally, probably need them just as badly). It’s certainly reasonable to ask for positive feedback, especially when you can be specific about the kinds of information that would be helpful to you. Whether or not you get the support you need, you certainly increase the odds by asking for what you want.

Never pass up a chance to let others know when they’ve done a good job. Make a habit of recognizing and appreciating others; however, don’t take this route unless you can do so without an agenda or expectation of getting something in return. Genuinely acknowledging a coworker’s skills or commenting on how effectively a colleague handled a difficult situation can not only make that person’s day, but also provide a badly-needed boost in the face of job stress and emotional fatigue. Offering to give a colleague a bit of a break, or leaving an anonymous note or token of appreciation will add a great deal of positive energy to the culture of the workplace, and will probably leave you feeling pretty good at the same time.

Remember that good relationships don’t happen by accident, and even in a really toxic environment, there are always things you can do to create your own little corner of safety and support.

Note: This article is an updated and more generic version of another article, “Are Your Colleagues Driving you Crazy?”, which was written specifically for educators and is available for purchase on this site. It was written exclusively for the EAP Digest (a Journal for Empolyee Assistance Program personnel, put out by Performance Resource Press) and includes excerpts and adaptations of material from the latest edition of The Win-Win Classroom.

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