Ten tips for dealing with difficult people while at work

Jul 18 2013 - 7:59am

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"Difficult people are your key to self empowerment; you need to learn how to cope with them, not let them dominate and affect you."

-- Janice Davies 

Over the years, I've encountered my fair share of difficult people. Years ago, I used to get bothered and worked up over dealing with them. I'd think, "Why are these people being so difficult?" "These people are so irresponsible!" "Just my luck to work with them" or "I don't ever want to work with this person again!"

After a while, I learned that these people are everywhere. They come in every variety and no workplace is without them. No matter where you go, you can never hide from them. And it just doesn't seem feasible to quit every time someone has an opposing view or is being difficult.

In my experience, there is very little you can do to change other people; you can only manage your own experience, thoughts and actions. Ultimately managing your relationship with difficult people is up to you. However, you can increase your skill at dealing with the difficult people at the workplace and beyond.

Here are 10 tips that may help:

1. Be calm -- Losing your temper and flaring up at the other person typically isn't the best way to get him/her to collaborate with you. Someone who is calm is seen as being in control, centered and more respectable. When the person you are dealing with sees that you are calm despite whatever he/she is doing, you will start getting their attention without them continually pushing your buttons.

2. Respond, don't react -- When you react, you are accepting responsibility for someone else's thoughts, behavior or actions. Take a deep breath, and allow yourself a moment to respond. You reply from your perspective and experience. It is not necessary to agree with or to deny someone else's position; instead you share your own.

3. Respond with compassion -- Most people are on their worst behavior when they are suffering or insecure. Perhaps they are dealing with a loss in their personal lives, or they are struggling with an unseen illness. Maybe they lack appropriate social skills and are stumbling through their life as best they can. Viewing a difficult person with kindness and respect will help balance your perspective.

4. Clarify communication -- You may be able to avoid conflict with difficult people by practicing clear communication. Use clarifying questions to ask for specifics or examples. A useful communication tool is to repeat what the other person said to ensure you understood. Ask follow up questions. Agree on next steps, and put it in writing.

5. Let the person know where you are coming from -- One thing that has worked for me is to let the person know my intentions behind what I am doing. Sometimes, they are being resistant because they think you have a hidden agenda. Letting them in on the reason behind your actions and the full background of what is happening will enable them to empathize with your situation. This lets them get them onboard much easier.

6. Get some perspective from others -- In all likelihood, your colleagues, managers and friends must have experienced similar situations. They will be able to see things from a different angle and offer a different take on the situation. Seek them out, share your story and listen to what they have to say.

7. Build a rapport -- With all the computers, emails and messaging systems, work sometimes turn into a mechanical process. Re-instill the human touch by connecting with your colleagues on a personal level. Go out with them for lunches or dinners. Get to know them as people, and not colleagues. Learn more about their hobbies, their family and their lives. Foster strong connections.

8. Choose not to engage --

You do not have to attend every argument you are invited to. You can politely decline the invitation to engage in gossip, argument and complaints. You have the option to remove yourself from a heated discussion. Choose to excuse yourself if a difficult person tries to engage you in an argument, and come back the discussion later.

9. Ignore -- If you have already tried everything above and the person is still not being receptive, the best way might be to just ignore. After all, you have already done all that you can within your other means. Get on your daily tasks and interface with the person only when needed. Of course, this isn't feasible in cases in which the person plays a critical role in your work, which leads us to my last tip.

10. Take it higher -- When all else fails, escalate to your manager. This is considered the trump card and shouldn't be used unless you've completely exhausted your means. Sometimes, the only way to get someone moving or behaving appropriately is through the top-down approach, especially in bureaucratic organizations.

Effectively managing yourself and your behavior when dealing with difficult people can improve your quality of life in a truly difficult situation. By applying these tools you may also maintain your sanity, reputation, credibility and build valuable relationship and leadership skills.

Brad Larsen is a life coach and corporate consultant from Northern Utah. He can be reached at bradlarsen@dailymasterpieces.com.

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