How to Deal With Difficult Co-workers

Follow these tips to help you keep your cool in the workplace

Six ways to deal with difficult personalities in the workplace

Many of us have a go-to cocktail party story about the outlandish behaviour of former co-workers. You know, the one about the colleague who was in the bathroom crying every day or the cubicle mate that was a pathological liar?

Hindsight can allow us to joke about these situations, but if you are still living in the everyday drudgery of dealing with a difficult personality, it is hard to see the humour in the situation.

Unfortunately, it is rare that we are able to change other people’s behaviour, but let’s review six suggestions for reducing the friction with challenging co-workers.

1. Learn to Recognize Your Own Triggers.

We all carry our own emotional baggage around with us. My therapist always encourages me to pause and ask myself why I am reacting to someone else’s behaviour. When we examine the reason we are reacting, many times it is because that person is offending one of our core values (you value calmness and they are always freaking out) or triggers a painful experience from the past. Reminding yourself that this is about conflicting values, or that this person brings up memories of an old high school bully, can at least provide a voice to what you are feeling.


2. Recognize if you are being manipulated.

Dr. George Simon, psychologist and international expert on manipulation, warns us that there are 18 tactics that manipulative people use to get what they want. These tactics include minimization, selective inattention, shaming, rationalization, playing the victim, projecting the blame and brandishing anger.  It can take a long time to recognize that you are being manipulated, as you are often made to feel like it’s your fault. According to Dr. Simon, responding with aggression will only escalate the behaviour of your aggressor. Instead, try to focus on keeping your emotions in check and calmly pointing out the manipulation as it’s happening.


3. Don’t Assume Intention.

It is so easy to read intention behind other people’s words or actions. However, if you’ve ever had anyone assume intention behind something you did, you know how disrespectful it can feel. If someone says something that rubs you the wrong way, try to give them the opportunity to explain themselves. Start the conversation by saying, “When you said X, it really upset me. Help me to understand what you meant by that?”


4. Always explain YOUR intention.

It is important to clearly communicate your intention with co-workers, especially if you are dealing with someone who feels like a ticking time bomb. Try to preface each interaction with, “I’m checking in with you because….” or “I’m following up because…” By spelling out the intention behind your words and actions, you are reducing the possibility of misinterpretation. This is particularly crucial when you are trying to move past a previous dispute.


5. Address uncomfortable situations before they become toxic.

If a colleague has done something that bothers you yet it’s not something you want to approach management about, try to address it directly with them before the resentment grows and it starts to poison your work environment. Those magic words, “Help me to understand…” can really come in handy again here. For example, “Help me to understand what happened…” or “Help me to understand why you…” can start a constructive dialogue. It takes courage to address things directly, but if you choose to remain silent, resentment can quickly build up.


6. You are not responsible for the emotional state of others.

Women, in particular, tend to easily pick up on the emotional cues of others. We can sense if someone is frustrated or upset and we feel compelled to address it.  This can distract our focus and drain our emotional energy. Tara Mohr, in her book, Playing Big, refers to this phenomenon as “the noisy room” and in the workplace this can lead to lowered productivity.  Picking up on non-verbal cues can strengthen relationships at work, but if you feel obliged to intervene in what you are sensing, this can end up working against you. Just because you can help, doesn’t mean you have to.

Tomorrow is a new start at work.

Decide which tip is most applicable to your work situation. Make a commitment to yourself about what you are going to do differently, to change the dynamic between you and your difficult colleague. Remember that you end up spending more time at work than with your own family. Isn’t it worth pushing a bit outside of your comfort zone to achieve greater harmony with your co-workers?