Jacque Ristau, MS, LPC

The one thing we all have in common with co-workers, in spite of natural differences, is a desire to be satisfied with our jobs and the time we spend at work. You can create more harmony and understanding in your work environment by learning about and accepting the unique qualities and differences of your fellow workers.

It’s important to be tolerant of individual differences if you want peace and cooperation. Some people you work with may be outgoing, even brash, while others are reserved. Some are thin-skinned and defensive and others are forgiving and easy going. Getting along at work is often a matter of being flexible and willing to compromise.

If you’re going to function well at work, the ability to manage your emotions and remain calm is essential. Strong negative emotions disrupt and interfere with getting the work done and can block your career progress. The quality of the work you do and your productivity can depend on good communication and problem solving skills. You can’t think clearly to communicate or solve problems if you’re emotionally reactive. But sometimes, no matter how well we control our emotions or have honed our communication skills, dealing with difficult people can be a challenge.

There are difficult people in every workplace. You can’t always avoid problem people, especially at work. But you don’t need the stress they bring either. So what can you do?

First, face the issue. The biggest mistake is to ignore the issue, hoping it will go away. You owe it to yourself and your relationship with your coworker to deal with it. You can stand up for yourself and be respectful of your coworker at the same time. If you don’t deal with the situation, you may become resentful, causing yourself more stress. You can’t change someone else, but you can make her stop and think about what she does and says.

Take some time to understand exactly what’s happening to you. It’s normal to feel anger, pain, humiliation, fear and concern about making the situation worse. Once you’re fully aware of what’s happening, you may decide to live with the situation long term. Often this isn’t an option. Left unaddressed, a difficult situation with a difficult person usually gets worse. The conflict can simmer below the surface and erupt at the least appropriate time. You can chose an optimal time for solving the problem instead of waiting for an eruption.

Once you’ve decided to face the issue and deal with the difficult person, start by taking time to examine yourself. Are you sure that the other person is really the problem and that you’re not overreacting? Have you always experienced difficulty with the same type of person or actions? Is there a negative pattern in your interactions with coworkers? Do you recognize that you have hot buttons that are easily pushed? We all do. Always start with a self examination to be sure the problem really is a difficult person’s actions.

Before you decide to confront them, assess the difficult person. Is she dangerous, difficult, or just different? If she intends to do you harm, steer clear of her. If she’s not out to get you, make sure you’re not being intolerant. Perhaps you’re a neatnik but she isn’t. That’s probably a difference you can live with. Different perspectives aren’t right or wrong, just different.

Next, look inward again. Your initial reaction might be to lash out. Instead, ask, “Why am I reacting this way?” You think someone is difficult because she causes you to feel things you don’t want to feel. We each have hot buttons. Remember this important fact. It’s not about you. Not usually. People tend to take bad behavior personally, but most of the time, the difficult person is being difficult because there’s something stressful happening in her life, or she’s not skilled at relationships.

Get perspective. Ask a neutral party about the situation. She might provide fresh insight. This experience is not gossiping. Be clear about this with yourself as well as with the person you’re consulting. Be willing to hear that you may bear responsibility for the difficulty. For example, Mom may remind you that you’ve always had a problem with authority. Brainstorm ways to address the situation that won’t make the situation worse. Where do you stand? Do you have enough power to confront the problem person? If you do, follow through with the next two tips.

Keep your composure. If a coworker says something that offends or upsets you, try to respond instead of react. Reaction is immediate and emotional. When we react, we’re more likely to say or do things we might later regret. A response is planned and controlled, and it leads to fewer communication issues. It will be easier to respond if you’re able to control your breathing and stay calm. Difficult people cause stress. Stress muddles your thinking. It’s far better to address the difficult person while you can maintain some objectivity and emotional control. Do what works for you to calm your nerves and find guidance, from within or above, on how to cope with the problem. Slow deep breathing will calm the adrenaline response.

Act in the moment. Deal with the bad behavior as it’s happening. You can practice in your mind ahead of time. Know that they’re skilled at ratcheting up the tension. If you feed into it, you’re going to feel overwhelmed. When it’s time to talk, approach the person with whom you’re having the problem for a private discussion. Start with “We seem to be having some difficulty. Is this a good time to talk about it?” Choose a neutral place away from your work area, such as over lunch or in a quiet area during a break. Address what you can do to resolve the problem.

Calmly tell the difficult person what you need. However they respond, repeat what you said. If that doesn’t work, say, “Why don’t we discuss this at another time?” With the person who disparages others to make herself look good, try “I hear you. What would you suggest?” It makes her think twice about putting you down.

Remember that one size doesn’t fit all. You can’t work with every difficult personality in the same way. You need to figure out the best approach for each person. It’s crucial to understand the problem person. What she’s doing may make no sense to you, but it makes sense to her. Try to put yourself in her shoes.

There are times when it’s best to just let it go. The time and energy or the relationship itself just aren’t worth the effort. There are times when you know resolution just isn’t going to happen. You still have control of you, your response, both internally and externally. Internally, you can let go of your emotional response when you know it isn’t serving you or the situation.

Jacque Ristau, MS, LPC

Copyright 2011, Jacque Ristau

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Against criticism a man can

neither protest nor defend

himself; he must act in spite of it,

and then it will gradually yield to


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe