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.

While a challenge for employees and employers alike, there is one conflict resolution strategy that can change the conflict dynamics and 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 look more objectively at another’s actions. It also allows you to assess the impacts of their actions. It  orients you to a more solution-focused mindset.

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

1. Clarify perceptions

Everyone has a different set of lenses they use to understand people and situations. That’s why it’s important to get curious about another’s actions. To find out the motivation behind their behaviour.

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?”

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 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. It also helps to identify what emotion you are experiencing. 

Why does this person’s behaviour push your buttons?

How is this person’s behaviour impacting you?

It is also important to recognize that the other party has emotions fueling his/her behaviour. 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?”

3. Communicate clearly

Clear communication involves being able to articulate what you are thinking or feeling in a situation.

Use an ‘I’ statement when you are addressing another’s behaviour. “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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