How to deal with difficult people in the workplace: 5 strategies to stay sane
How to deal with difficult people in the workplace: 5 strategies to stay sane
In your more idealistic days, you might have believed that all human beings are caring, considerate and generally pleasant to be around. However, after a year or two in the professional world, you’ve most likely had a run-in with someone (or multiple someones) with sub-par interpersonal skills. Companies do their best and try to train, coach or get rid of these people, but I’m fond of saying that difficult people are like weeds: pluck one, and within seconds another will sprout up in its place.

Difficult bosses or colleagues are difficult in all sorts of ways. Maybe you’ve got a Debbie Downer or a Negative Nelly. Maybe they pick fights with you and you can’t do anything right. Maybe they are so stressed out that you fear for their health. No matter what the situation, though, you don’t have to let difficult colleagues ruin your day or your job. There are a few rules you need to keep in mind when dealing with challenging co-workers.

1. Mentally prepare yourself
2. Don’t get emotional
3. Address issues head on
4. Set realistic expectations
5. Know when to involve HR

Here’s more on how to get what you need from them and escape unscathed.

1. Prepare for contact in advance

If you shy away from conflict like me, you might simply try to avoid working with the unpleasant person. This could be a viable solution, but more likely you’ll be forced into at least some interaction. Mentally prepare for these conversations ahead of time, reminding yourself that this person is not important in the scheme of things and that you’ll be okay no matter what they throw your way. Brace yourself and approach the difficult person calmly. Maintain a tone of enthusiasm and insist that you want to help, making the exchange as short and sweet as possible.

2. Don’t take the bait

Incendiary people want to get a rise out of you. That’s how they get their energy. If the difficult person tries to argue or upset you through cruel remarks and criticism, stand your ground and don’t get into a screaming match. No one will care that someone else started it—all they’ll remember is the altercation. Keep your expression even and say something like: “I’m sorry you feel that way and I’m going to do my best.”

3. Proactively resolve issues

Although it’s admittedly hard to do, the best solution is to address a poor working relationship head on. Choose a time when the unpleasant person is likely to be less unpleasant (e.g. lunchtime, after a major project has been completed). Ask them what you can do to improve the relationship and work better together. Even if you’re convinced the situation isn’t your fault, taking responsibility and being eager to please will elevate you in the other person’s eyes. And hey, maybe they’re clueless about their behavior and this will be a wake-up call.

4. Be realistic about expectations

Understand that some personality clashes in the workplace are bound to happen. Even if you try to be nice to everyone, chances are that you’ll rub someone the wrong way—or vice versa. As long as the situation does not progress to overt war and you’re able to get your job done, try to let it go. Focus instead on the people with whom you enjoy interacting.

5. Know when enough is enough

Often, abrasive individuals will be that way to everyone, prompting you and your colleagues to roll your eyes or crack jokes. But it’s a different scenario entirely when the person seems to have it in for just you. If you’ve tried talking to them to no avail, and you feel you’re entering the territory of true emotional abuse, go to your boss or HR for advice. Consider leaving if your self-esteem continues to take a beating.