Dealing with Difficult People in the Workplace

The people involved in workplace conflict can be as much of the problem as the actual conflict.

We often call these kinds of people ‘difficult people.’  Difficult people can derail important conversations and foist their own agenda in meetings. They can seemingly turn a straight-forward task into a gong show of epic proportions. The good news is there are several strategies that can help you deal more constructively with difficult people at work.

Strategy: Separate the person from the problem

Separating the person from the problem allows you to step back and gain a new perspective on the situation and on the ‘problem’ person. It helps you be less reactive in the moment so you can come to the table with a more solution-focused mindset. Separating the person from the problem also allows the other person to be less defensive, and hopefully, less reactive to you as well.

You can begin separating the person from the problem with these three steps:

Step 1. Clarify perceptions

Everyone has a different set of lenses they use to understand people and situations. Learn more about those lenses here. That’s why it’s important to get curious about another’s actions, and discover the motivation behind their behaviour. Asking questions is the best way to clarify another person’s perceptions. That said, not all questions are created equal. In circumstances when there is conflict and/or hurt feelings open-ended questions (questions that invite more than a ‘yes/no’ answer) are the most effective.

When asking questions, it is important to name the behaviour rather than blame the person. 

Describe the specific action and avoid placing your own interpretation of ‘why’ in the question. Example: “I’ve noticed you’ve been arriving after 8:30, why is that?”

Step 2. Recognize emotions

Emotions are a normal part of the human experience. When we are confronted with a difficult person or situation, we generally have two reactions to our emotions—we obey them or we ignore them. Exploding and losing our cool with someone doesn’t create a workplace culture of respect and cooperation, and neither does avoiding the person and pretending they will just go away.

A constructive way of dealing with our emotions, and the emotions of others, is to recognize and evaluate them. When we’re with someone who raises our temperature level, it’s important to ask ourselves why they frustrate us.

Why does this person’s behaviour push my buttons?

How is this person’s behaviour impacting  me right now?

It is also important to recognize that the other party has emotions fueling his/her behaviour. Sometimes, people become testier and less inclined to listen when they haven’t felt heard themselves. By getting curious about how they are feeling about a certain issue or situation distinguishes them as a person who has a concern, from a person who is the concern.

For example, you could ask, “I sensed earlier in our meeting you were frustrated about the upcoming changes. How are you feeling about what was discussed?”

Want a couple more strategies for managing emotions during a disagreement or conflict, check out my blog article on managing emotions in a heated conversation

Step 3. Communicate clearly

Clear communication involves being able to articulate what you are thinking or feeling in a situation. For example, using an‘I’ statement when you are addressing another’s behaviour can be an effective conversation-opener. Ex:“I feel/think: _(insert feeling here)___.  

With ‘I’ statements it’s important to name and not blame behaviour. After saying ‘I feel/think,’ directly name the emotion you have. Avoid saying, “I feel you….” as this implies you have already made a decision about the person’s intentions.

For example, it is more effective to say, “I feel frustrated when you dismiss my ideas,” rather than saying, “I feel you have a vendetta to sabotage all my ideas.” Then, acknowledge that you wish to discuss desired solutions rather than past events. Ask, “What can we do moving forward?”

The next time you encounter a difficult person in the workplace, try separating the person from the problem by clarifying perceptions, recognizing emotions, and communicating clearly. It’s not easy, but separating the person from the problem can be an important strategy to transform conflict and facilitate better work relationships.

2 Replies to “Dealing with Difficult People in the Workplace”

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