We will all cross paths with someone we view as “difficult” during our lifetime. This person (or people) can range from being mildly annoying to upsetting enough to impact our well-being. When that someone is a co-worker, it adds to the stress already inherent in the job and can make work downright awful. Learning to navigate interactions with a difficult co-worker is essential for your own sanity and overall career survival.
Let’s start with where you have the most control … yourself. As a human being, you are subject to daily fluctuations in stress, sleep, hunger, physical health and mental health. Think about a time when you felt more easily annoyed, irritable or frustrated. What was going on? Were you tired, hungry or stressed? Did you have other things going on in your life that preoccupied you or added to your stress? You won’t always be running at 100%, but if you have a good routine in place to recharge, you will have more fuel in the tank to deal with a difficult co-worker. If you haven’t done so already, develop and implement a routine to help you recharge and recover between shifts.
When interacting with a difficult co-worker, it is helpful to recognize what about that person or interaction is problematic for you. Once you do that, you are better able to take constructive action to manage your responses when dealing with that person. The good thing about people who are difficult is that they are often predictable. This means you can reasonably anticipate the interaction and come up with a plan (and contingencies) ahead of time.
If you notice a partner who seems to interact well with that person (or better than you do), observe how they respond to and interact with the person. If you are still perplexed at how they can somehow not be bothered by this difficult co-worker, ask them how they approach those interactions. Maybe they can share their perspective to help shift how you think about it. Often, how we think impacts how we feel about a person or situation, which subsequently influences our behavior.
Now it’s time to talk about some techniques for directly interacting with a difficult co-worker. The goal here is to make the interaction less painful for all involved. Here are some suggestions:
- Don’t give your power away by fighting back. Although it feels good at the moment, fighting back often does not solve anything, and it drains you physically and mentally. It can also lead to work problems and disciplinary action if you are viewed as argumentative or unable to deal with conflict in the workplace.
- Consider where you are focusing your efforts. Avoid trying to change the person. This is often ineffective and will likely leave you feeling more exhausted and frustrated. Focus on changing your response to the person. Think of it like a chess game — use strategy, not emotion.
- Don’t take it personally. When we take things personally, we can become defensive, which often adds to an already uncomfortable interaction. Someone may be acting “difficult” because they are mismanaging their own stress or emotions, or they may have other issues they are struggling with. Shifting your perspective to consider other possible reasons for their behavior can reduce some of the frustration and help you better navigate the interaction.
- Take a time-out. As our emotions elevate, our frustration tolerance and ability to effectively communicate decline. When possible, excuse yourself from the interaction so that you can take some deep breaths to calm down before engaging with the person again.
- Keep your own negativity in check. A negative attitude can be contagious. Avoid getting sucked into the drama. Your own attitude will influence how you approach the situation. Remember that in any interaction with another person, you influence 50% based on what you choose to say and do.
Dealing with a difficult co-worker is never fun. If all else fails, keep this in mind: Try your best to make it better. If you can’t make it better, don’t make it worse! This can be a difficult pill to swallow, but sometimes, it’s best to put your ego aside and choose your battles. If you’re struggling with how to navigate interactions with a difficult co-worker, consider seeking consultation from trusted peers to help you explore your options.