11 Effective Strategies To Deal With Difficult People At Work

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handling difficult people at work

When disagreements arise between yourself and a fellow coworker (as they inevitably will), knowing the most effective communication and conflict resolution skills to use in the workplace to diffuse tension will help you stay professional in the heat of the moment and strengthen your working relationship, too.

Dealing with difficult people and differences of opinion is never easy, but when equipped with the right conflict management techniques and strategies, you'll get through them more easily and be more likely to avoid issues in the future.

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What are the characteristics of a difficult person at work?

Difficult people may resist feedback or change, causing friction within the team. They tend to have poor communication skills, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts. Difficult individuals may lack empathy, making it challenging to build rapport and maintain healthy working relationships.

Other traits of difficult people at work include:

  • Stubbornness
  • Unwillingness to collaborate
  • A negative attitude
  • Inability to compromise
  • Easily frustrated
  • Passive-aggressive
  • Not being a team player
  • Poor listening skills
  • Argumentative
  • Complaining often

It's tempting to cut all contact when you and a colleague butt heads. You just spread the word that you can't work with them any longer, and tell everyone not to sit you together at upcoming events or meetings.

You don't have to explain yourself, apologize, or listen to their side of the story. But if you dismiss every coworker whenever a conflict occurs, you are going to end up in a very cold and unpleasant workplace.

Colleagues, friends, and even loving partners disagree occasionally. That’s life. But don’t simply “throw the baby out with the bathwater” each time that happens with challenging coworkers.

When it comes to difficult people, you need to take steps to repair and rebuild your working relationships by employing critical conflict resolution techniques that will not only dissolve tension but strengthen your ties with fellow coworkers

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Here's how to handle with difficult people at work using conflict resolutions skills and strategies.

1. Make an appointment to discuss the problem.

Find a time when neither of you is dealing with "HALT" issues that prevent you from bringing your best self to the conversation. People have HALT issues when they feel Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.

This meeting together is about addressing the issue and working out your differences while setting a plan in place to be efficient in the workplace. Sometimes the difficult person will comply but they may also not listen and find the whole thing to be dumb or annoying.

Do your best to stay calm during the meeting and make sure you set your boundaries clearly.

2. Stay on topic.

Be sure to not stray off the topic when you are speaking to them. Never deter to personal attacks or insults. Be clear, concise, and try to leave out anything accusatory.

This contains the discussion and helps keep things manageable. It also helps you prove that you mean business to them.

3. Don’t bring up the past.

One way to deal with a difficult person is to avoid words like “always” and “never” when speaking to them. How would you feel if someone said that you always interrupt people when they are talking, or never pick up a check at a restaurant?

These types of comments can ignite fresh hostility. Just stick to the issues at hand.

4. Refrain from name-calling.

It's hard to make peace when you are called a “stupid jerk” or worse. Stay away from name-calling or derogatory statements because it will only escalate the situation.

Keep it classy and considerate. Above all, be professional about it.

5. Don't share details with your office pals.

This isn't a time to try to get them to join your side of the argument. Doing that just adds to the level of hostility in the workplace, and will negate your positive conflict management strategies.

Keep things contained, as you don't want to start gossip or drama. You can rant or vent to other people in your life, but keep it out of your work life.

6. Be willing to listen.

Don’t think of a response while the person you disagree with is still talking. Really hear what they have to say. They may have a legitimate reason for behaving as they did.

You don’t always perceive situations like others do, so give them an opportunity to share their side of the story.

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7. Be willing to compromise.

It's harder to resolve a conflict if you expect to win all the time. Sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and do a little bit of compromising. In the end, you have to pick your battles. So be wise about what hill you want to die on and compromise when you can.

8. Take a break, if needed.

If you are too upset to remain open-minded, stop the discussion immediately. Set a mutually convenient time to revisit the problem, then do something that calms you. Take a brisk walk. Listen to music. Meditate.

If you are home, watch television or take a bath. After you relax, you will likely feel more compassionate and less argumentative. These conflict management techniques will help make sure you're capable of speaking openly and honestly about the conflict with your coworker.

9. Don't react.

Most of the time, your difficult coworker just wants to get a reaction out of you. So, if you give into them, they will likely repeat their actions. You have to regain your powers by not giving them the satisfaction of getting to you.

Don't give them anything next time they are being difficult. Either ignore them or say something that makes you look indifferent.

10. Use 'I' statements.

During conflicts, share your feelings with "I" instead of “you” language, which places blame and inflames the battle.

An example of “I” language: “I feel angry because I wasn't consulted.”

An example of “you” language: “You didn’t ask me to speak. What you did was really mean.”

Respectfully manage work-related conflicts that arise. As you do, you will hopefully find that this process strengthens all of your relationships.

11. Get your boss involved.

If all else fails, it's best to get your superiors involved. Sometimes difficult people need to get in trouble with the boss. They need the slap on the wrist. So report them to your superiors and request a meeting.

In the meeting, explain what the problem is and the steps you have taken to remedy them. Your boss should put something in place to help fix the difficult situation and avoid conflict in the future.

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Janis Roszler is a licensed marriage and family therapist, board-certified sex therapist, author, and award-winning medical media producer. She travels internationally as a speaker on relationships and health-related topics.