Challenging people are a fact of working life. Learning how to deal with difficult coworkers and still get things done will make a big difference in your success.
And it will be key for your sanity.
Tips for How to Deal with Difficult Coworkers
These lessons are based on my own experience of working with or managing thousands of people, and coaching hundreds of clients and students over the last decade.
Always Start by Focusing on Work
Your coworker may be difficult, but you still have to work with them. So your communication has to begin and end with work.
That means you must be professional.
If you maintain professionalism, and they do not, then they have crossed the line and they are in the wrong.
This is important not just to clearly distinguish who is being reasonable and who is not, but also to save yourself a lot of stress.
The other person may get stressed out and upset by all kinds of things. But you must remain calm, focused and emotionally uninvolved.
Many working relationships devolve because people get too familiar with each other. They get comfortable saying things that are personal and not work-related.
If you can build a friendship at work, that’s fantastic.
But if you are just two totally different people and will never see eye-to-eye on certain things, then keep your communication focused on work and nothing more.
In Any Disagreement, Ask Questions to Understand Their Perspective
This will take some patience.
But successfully learning how to deal with difficult coworkers requires a change in your normal approach to communication.
You may want to just storm out or get into a shouting match.
Resist that temptation and instead try to dig deeper into their thought process.
Why did they come to that conclusion? What are they really requesting and for what purpose?
Many people are just poor communicators and have a hard time expressing themselves.
Be open-minded to their perspective and you will find that many conflicts will end before they even begin.
Oftentimes difficult coworkers just want to be heard. Give them an extra two or three minutes to vent, and all of a sudden they are completely calm and receptive to what you have to say.
The concept of tactical empathy can be very useful here.
Offer a Genuine Solution
If they are digging in their heels and refuse to hear you out, try creating a third option.
One client of mine had a disagreement with one of his difficult coworkers.
His colleague wanted sales numbers. My client had already provided them in a folder on the internal server.
The guy pretended like they weren’t there, but wouldn’t explain what exactly he needed or why.
He just kept making the same incessant request for sales numbers.
So my client offered a genuine solution: “Maybe we can schedule a 30-minute call later this week so you can explain to me exactly what you need and I can figure out how to get it for you.”
Anyone who does not respond positively to this offer is not serious about finding a solution.
They may be trying to “be right” or “make a statement” even after they were proven wrong. Or maybe they are just being obstructionist.
But if you make a genuine attempt to resolve the impasse, and they don’t get on board, then at least you know where you stand.
When to End the Conversation
So you’ve listened and you understand their perspective. You’ve tried to offer a solution to the problem, but they aren’t interested.
Once you understand their perspective, and you still don’t agree or can’t work with them on this issue, then say something like:
- “We will have to agree to disagree on this.”
- “We aren’t going to come to an agreement on this right now. Let’s pick this up another time.”
And end the conversation.
There is no point in going back-and-forth, arguing over semantics or unproductive issues.
Recognize when a productive conversation is no longer possible, and politely excuse yourself.
Successfully dealing with difficult coworkers requires you to set and enforce good boundaries. And sometimes that means just ending the conversation.
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
If you were walking slowly down the street and accidently stepped into a crack in the pavement, you might twist your ankle.
If you were riding a bike at high speed and went over the same crack, you would barely even feel it.
On the bike, the same obstacle has a smaller impact. Because you are moving faster, with greater momentum, and greater power, towards a destination that is farther away.
The same thing applies in your working life.
If you do not have a clear long-term goal that motivates and excites you, then you will be easily overwhelmed by day-to-day dramatics.
And dealing with difficult coworkers will be excruciatingly painful.
That goal might be to get promoted, to build a reputation in your industry, to achieve a certain title, or to beat your sales quota.
Keep your focus and attention on that long-term goal and suddenly your difficult colleagues won’t seem so difficult.
They will just feel like minor annoyances and hiccups along your path.
Ignore Attacks, Barbs or Passive-Aggressive Comments
- “Of course YOU would say that.”
- “I should have known I wouldn’t be able to rely on you for this.”
- “I need this done. Are you trying to screw me over?”
- “Stop asking dumb questions.”
- “This is so typical of the people in your department”
- “If you need an explanation of how this works, I’d be happy to loan you my Engineering 101 textbook from college.”
- “Hi. So I’m hoping you can actually get something done this time. Here’s what I need…”
These kinds of comments can really get under your skin. They might make you want to snipe back, or go on the attack.
But responding to these kinds of things is not a productive use of your time or energy. It accomplishes nothing.
Do not engage.
Just laugh it off and move on.
You don’t have to smile and be pleasant when they say those things. Just stay focused and don’t have an emotional reaction.
You will find dealing with difficult coworkers becomes much easier.
Remain strong and steady on your side of the dispute.
Which brings us to the last point…
Don’t Have Small Energy with Difficult Coworkers
One common mistake when dealing with difficult coworkers is to try to avoid conflict. This is related to having small energy.
“Small” energy is what happens when you feel weaker or less powerful than someone else.
When you get “small”, your voice becomes quieter, your eyes avoid the other person’s gaze, you slouch, and/or you slightly withdraw physically from the situation.
Verbally, your words go from being clear and straightforward, to being uncertain and hesitant.
Don’t allow that to happen.
Think of yourself as being bigger than the minutiae of the situation.
If you saw a small ant crawling on the wall, you wouldn’t suddenly shrink into fear and intimidation. Same thing with this difficult colleague.
That is “big” energy.
If someone is raising their voice at you, saying disrespectful things, or using manipulative or passive-aggressive language, you must remain steady.
When you speak, keep your voice loud and clear. Hold eye contact just as you normally would. Don’t move away or slouch.
Verbally, don’t minimize or qualify your own words. And don’t get into a passive-aggressive argument or insult-trading contest.
Convey strength and power in your verbal and nonverbal communication.
You will get through the difficult conversation, keep your sanity, and reduce the chances of problems with this person in the future.
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