How to deal with difficult people at work: 13 tips
How do you deal with difficult people at work?
To help you use the right approaches in dealing with difficult people at work, we asked HR and people managers this question for their best tips. From maintaining a patient and professional attitude toward them to setting healthy boundaries, there are several tips that could help you conduct yourself tactfully when dealing with difficult people in the workplace.
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Here are 13 tips these leaders follow in dealing with difficult people at work:
- Maintain a Patient and Professional Attitude Toward Them
- Learn to Avoid Them
- Have a Private Discussion With the Difficult Colleague
- Have Your Grievances on Record With HR
- Make Your Communications Short and Curt
- Never Respond in the Heat of the Moment
- Evaluate the Severity First and Act Accordingly
- Avoid Resolving Issues Through Email Communication
- Control Your Reactions as Much as Possible
- Solicit the Help of Close Colleagues to Intervene
- Use the Labeling Technique to Help Find Common Ground
- Communicate Publicly or on Record
- Set Healthy Boundaries
Maintain a Patient and Professional Attitude Toward Them
I am a big fan of “killing them with kindness.” Firstly, being nice towards the grumps can help distinguish the folks who are just having a bad day from perpetually difficult people. Also, remaining publicly patient and professional in the face of hostility often results in the aggressor looking poorly while you come off as gracious and even-keeled. However, it is important to make the distinction between being kind and being a format.
You do not need to tolerate or enable abuse to hold the moral high ground. Often, this approach is a matter of responding with humility and an even temper, and shutting down, changing, diffusing, or tabling the conversation when the other party refuses to pay the same respect.
Tasia Duske, Museum Hack
Learn to Avoid Them
One of the things that you can do to deal with difficult people at work is to learn to avoid them. Avoid places and times when they are likely to be there. There’s no need to confront them since the only thing that will come of it will be a headache and an argument. If you can’t avoid them, it’s best to walk away. If they are close enough to you that they’re always around, staying home might be a good idea. If they are not a representative of the company you work for, then there is no reason that you can’t just stay away from them.
Saneem Ahearn, Colorescience
Have a Private Discussion With the Difficult Colleague
Approach your colleague for a private discussion. Assertively and professionally, let the other person know how you feel. You earn respect when you give them an idea that you are not tolerating their ill-treatment. I recommend using “I statements” during the conversation. It’s a communication approach that looks into your experience of the situation rather than attacking or accusing the other party. Likewise, explain to your colleague the impact of their actions on you or the project.
Ryan Stewart, Webris
Have Your Grievances on Record With HR
Reporting to HR is a good strategy for two reasons. First, it provides a way to get impartial and confidential help with a difficult situation. Second, it can create a paper trail in case you need to prove that you tried to address the issue. When faced with a difficult situation at work, many people feel like they have nowhere to turn. They may be hesitant to speak with their manager, for fear of retaliation or because the problem is with the manager themselves. They may also feel like they cannot speak with their friends or family about the situation, for fear of embarrassing themselves or exposing someone else’s private business. That’s where reporting to HR comes in.
Reporting to HR provides an impartial and confidential place where you can get help dealing with a difficult situation at work. It also creates a paper trail which can be useful if you need to prove that you attempted to address the issue yourself.
Mogale Modisane, ToolsGaloreHQ
Make Your Communications Short and Curt
Try not to engage for too long with difficult people on the job. A working relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be a conversational one, at least not outside of the context of the job. Try to keep your interactions with these sorts of people short and to the point. The less time you spend idling with them the less likely you are to reach a mental or emotional breaking point. Don’t let your feelings toward a difficult person bleed into your ability to work effectively. Do your best to remain civil and stick to work tasks alone when dealing with them. You don’t need to be work-friendly, just work effective.
Boye Fajinmi, TheFutureParty
Never Respond in the Heat of the Moment
Working from home provides a number of benefits. One of the biggest, yet most unused benefits, is the ability to “walk away” and gather your thoughts in heated situations. The best advice I can offer for someone is to take full advantage of the ability to walk away when you work from home. That email you just got upset you but does not need a response tonight? Wait until the morning; let yourself cool down and be the one to flip the script with a level-headed response. Someone sent you an email that is tiring? Go for a walk. Get a workout in. Do something that allows you to be calm, cool and collected when you do finally give a response.
I am not telling anyone to ignore their boss or their job. However, most emails are not sent with the expectation of getting a response within minutes. If that were the case, it probably would have come over via Teams or a phone call. Stay cool. Stay calm. Use your remote environment as a tool when it comes to dealing with difficult people.
Brittany Ethridge, Mosaic
Evaluate the Severity First and Act Accordingly
It depends on how bothersome these co-workers are. For instance, if they are bullying you severely, it may get to the point where you need to speak about it with your supervisor. On the other hand, if they are really chatty and this makes you feel distracted while you are working, perhaps you could put your earphones on to block out what they are saying. Discern how bad the situation is, and then act accordingly.
Miles Beckett, Flossy
Avoid Resolving Issues Through Email Communication
While email and other electronic forms of communication are convenient, they are also impersonal and relying on them to deal with a difficult person at work is a poor choice. Part of the problem with electronic dialogue is that it misses the nuances of non-verbal communication, which can lead to misunderstandings. Therefore, taking the time to sit down with someone, have a conversation, listen to each other’s concerns, and come up with some meaningful problem-solving tactics, adds the human element in which people can gain a better understanding of each other’s intent. By ditching the email and the DMs, you can avoid misunderstandings and create a much more effective way to deal with challenges while building better work relationships.
Adelle Archer, Eterneva
Control Your Reactions as Much as Possible
We often do not have control over who our coworkers are, but the one thing we can control is our reactions. There are things you can do to improve your stress management and responses by being mindful of the situation and how you conduct yourself. If you know you have a meeting with that person or are working on a project with them, create boundaries and keep it professional. The more you can manage the situation and limit your interactions, the better. Difficult people can be unavailable, but it’s important to remember that you have control over how you react to them and the impact you let them have on you.
Ann McFerran, Glamnetic
Solicit the Help of Close Colleagues to Intervene
An intervention may sound too personal a solution to put to work at a workplace. Still, considering the number of hours employees spend with their colleagues, there’s nothing wrong with using personal connections to deal with a problem. This approach works best when there already exists a bond between employees and when the attempt to correct or manage a rogue employee will enjoy the committed and active participation of all those involved. Choose a small group of people you know can positively influence the problematic employee, discuss and devise a solution in advance, and stage the intervention calmly and without diversion.
Azmaira Maker, Ph.D., Aspiring Families
Use the Labeling Technique to Help Find Common Ground
When there are contrasting personalities in the workplace, it can result in rising tensions which bring productivity to a standstill. Rather than playing a part in such a combative work environment, do your best to cut through the chaos and arrive at a more mutual understanding. One of the best ways to do this is through the use of labeling. This is a tactic that works just as well in the workplace as it does during hostage negotiations, and it’s all about making unbiased observations about how the other person is feeling.
By starting a sentence with, “It seems like…” or “It sounds like…”, it lets them know that you hear them. You understand how they’re feeling, and you’re doing your best to find common ground. It will also encourage them to elaborate on why they might be feeling a certain way, or what caused them to react the way that they did. Isolating a person’s negative emotions can rapidly improve their frame of mind, making it nothing short of a conversational superpower.
Max Wesman, GoodHire
Communicate Publicly or on Record
If you have not dealt with a difficult person at work yet, you may be one of the lucky few! With over 5 years of experience in management, personality clashes, and navigating difficult people can build your people skills and conflict management. This is easier said than done. Our company is lucky to have the opportunity to curate our teams and has been fortunate to avoid difficult people in the workplace due to the culture of our company. I have experienced difficult people in the workplace and the best piece of advice is to keep all communication in the public eye or on record.
‘Difficult’ is very general and can result in unpredictable results. I would encourage you to remain calm and handle all encounters with a group or email/communication platform to prove their difficulty if things escalate. This will provide evidence of their actions and evidence of your patience.
Daniel Forstner, Mailbox Empire
Set Healthy Boundaries
Unfortunately, sometimes we have to work with difficult people – and this situation requires setting and upholding healthy boundaries in the workplace. For example, let’s say someone you work with communicates with you in an unhealthy way – they demand things, yell, and even call you names. In this situation, you must set a clear boundary that you won’t accept such treatment and that you will need to have a conversation with human resources if it happens again. Always follow through because they won’t take your limits seriously if you don’t.
Alexandra Fennell, Attn: Grace