9 Useful Strategies to Dealing With Difficult People at Work

Why You Must Deal With Difficult People

Trust this statement. Your situation won’t get better; left unaddressed, it usually gets worse. Unaddressed, necessary conflict simmers just below—and often erupts counter-productively—above the surface at work.

Initially, people go into shock when they are treated unprofessionally, so if you take some time to understand exactly what is happening to you, you are not alone. Once you are fully aware of what is happening, deciding to live with the situation in the long term is not an option. It will fester to the point that you are miserable going into work each day.

You become so angry and feel so much pain that your efforts to address the situation become irrational. It’s far better to address the difficult person early while you can maintain some objectivity and emotional control. 

Occasionally, at this point in your relationship with a difficult person, you can back off and decide that nothing good will come from confronting this difficult person's behavior. You may find this is the case, for example, when you rarely encounter the person, or you're on a short term project that will soon end.

Make sure that you aren't fooling yourself to avoid conflict, but cases do exist when you can avoid the difficult person and minimize their impact on your work life. But, it depends on your individual circumstances.

Dont Gossip

Sharing the story of what happened with you and the other person may seem therapeutic, but at work, sharing can become more toxic than helpful. This is because the horizontal communication (communication between co-workers) that occurs within an organization can easily become a game of telephone that has gotten completely out of control.


Resist the urge to “set the story straight” before the other person does. If you are asked about the situation, be honest. Acknowledge that there is a conflict, but say that you are not comfortable discussing it at work.


Its Never Been Easier

The good news is that it’s now easier than ever to coordinate the work of individuals from around the world. As long as we have access to a laptop and the internet, there are hundreds of tools that have been created to make the process seamless.

Now, I’m not suggesting that it’s a walk in the park. There are setbacks to working remotely. Some things are simply easier with in-person interactions, such as training, instant feedback, and relationship building.


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7 Ignore Them

If one of your coworkers is driving you crazy but you can’t muster up the guts to approach them about it, you can always just try ignoring them. Just focus on your tasks and only interact with them if you absolutely have to.

Or maybe you’ve had many difficult conversations with this individual, to no effect. In that case, it’s probably not worth your mental and emotional bandwidth to worry about improving the relationship. Accept that you can’t win everyone over and that you’re only responsible for your behaviors and reactions, not others.

Don’t talk to this person unless you need something from them or vice versa. It can be an awkward scenario, and it’s unpleasant feeling like you have to hide from or avoid someone you work with. Weigh the pros and cons and consider changing departments or even companies if it becomes a major issue.

This can present a special challenge if your jerk coworker is someone who you have to work with on a regular basis, which brings us to our last tip.

3 Get a Second Opinion

If one person in your office is driving you nuts, try to get some perspective from others. Your coworkers and friends have most likely dealt with a similar situation, and they could offer a unique perspective and give you advice on how to handle the situation.

Share your story and seek advice. But a word of caution: don’t talk about your annoying coworker to everyone and their mother at your office. That’s a quick and easy way to be labeled as the office gossip, and that’s just not a good look.

Discretion is key. Remember, you’re looking for advice, not trying to smack-talk someone out of the office.

Handle aggression assertively

If someone is being highly aggressive with you, either verbally or physically, then regardless of who they are it’s OK to walk away or say that you are going to put the phone down – and that you will return when they have calmed down. No one at work has the right to compromise your sense of personal safety and wellbeing through engendering physical or psychological fear.

How to Productively Deal With Your Difficult Coworker

 © The Balance, 2018
© The Balance, 2018

Are you convinced that in almost all cases you need to productively deal with your difficult coworker? Good. These are ten productive ways in which you can learn and deal with your difficult coworker.

Start out by examining 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, for example?

Does a pattern exist for you in your interaction with coworkers? Do you recognize that you have hot buttons that are easily pushed? (All people do, you know.) Always start with self-examination to determine that the object of your attention really is a difficult person’s actions.

Explore what you are experiencing with a trusted friend or colleague

Brainstorm ways to address the situation. When you are the object of an attack, or your boss appears to support the dysfunctional actions of a coworker, it is often difficult to objectively assess your options. Anger, pain, humiliation, fear, and concern about making the situation worse are legitimate emotions.

Pay attention to the unspoken agreement you create when you solicit another’s assistance. You are committing to act unless you and your colleague agree that taking action will only hurt the situation. Otherwise, you risk becoming a whiner or complainer in the eyes of your colleague.

Approach the person with whom you are having the problem for a private discussion

Talk to the coworker about what you are experiencing in “I” messages. (Using “I” messages is a communication approach that focuses on your experience of the situation rather than on attacking or accusing the other person.) You can also explain to your coworker the impact of their actions on you.

Be pleasant and agreeable as you talk with the other person. They may not be aware of the impact of their words or actions on you. They may be learning about their impact on you for the first time. Or, they may have to consider and confront a pattern in their own interaction with people. Worst case?

They may know and recognize their impact on you but deny it or try to explain it away. Unfortunately, some difficult people just don’t care. During the discussion, attempt to reach an agreement about positive and supportive actions going forward. Focus on the one or two actions that hurt or hinder you the most.

Follow-up after the initial discussion

Has the behavior changed? Gotten better? Or worse? Determine whether a follow-up discussion is needed. Determine whether a follow-up discussion will have any impact. Decide if you want to continue to confront the difficult person by yourself.

Become a peacemaker. (Decide how badly you want to make peace with the other person and how much you want your current job. Determine whether you have experienced a pattern of support from your boss.) If you answer, “yes,” to these questions, hold another discussion. If not, escalate and move to the next idea.

You can confront your difficult coworker’s behavior publicly

Deal with the person with gentle humor or slight sarcasm. Or, make an exaggerated physical gesture—no, not that one—such as a salute or place your hand over your heart to indicate a serious wounding.

You can also tell the difficult person that you’d like them to consider important history in their decision making or similar words expressed positively, depending on the subject. Direct confrontation does work well for some people in some situations. It doesn't work to ask the person to stop doing what they’re doing, publicly, but you can employ more positive confrontational tactics.

The success of these tactics for you will depend on your ability to pull them off. Each person is not spur-of-the-moment funny, but if you are, you can use your humor well with difficult coworkers.

Manage your expectations

It might be a customer making unreasonable demands, your colleague expecting emails to be answered at midnight or your boss continually dumping urgent work on your desk just as you are heading for the exit. Choose a quiet moment when you can talk to them about their expectations and agree on how you can best work together, including what you can and can’t do, realistic timeframes and, if needed, a system for dealing with urgent issues. Having this conversation ahead of time enables a far more rational discussion about what’s needed, rather than one in the heat of a last minute panic.

** Insulting Ian **

This guy can’t seem to keep his foot out of his mouth. You’re either reeling from his latest insult or cringing for others.

He’ll say, “Congratulations, I didn’t know you’re pregnant.” To a woman who had too many chocolates over Easter.

“Hey mate, where did you get that sweater from? What a joke.”

As the recipient explains it was a special gift from his wife. As he pulls up next to you in the car park he quips, “Isn’t it about time you got a new car?”

Ian attempts to improve his self-esteem by putting others down. He often makes his comments in a joke-y manner, but there is nothing funny about how they make people feel.

There are two versions of Ian: malicious and clueless.

The malicious side is just plain nasty. Insulting Ian gets nice thoughts stuck in his throat.

Clueless Ian just doesn’t think before he speaks. Even after he hits and runs, leaving his victims in a disbelieving stupor, he meanders away in a world of his own.

>> Dealing with Ian < <

He no doubt continues with this behavior because no one ever lets him know it’s hurtful or inappropriate.

It doesn’t matter if he’s malicious or clueless Ian, the next time he makes a comment say, “That wasn’t necessary Ian. I’d appreciate if it didn’t happen again.” Or let him know it hurt your feelings.

If there is one thing each of these workplace characters has in common it’s inappropriate behavior that we let go unchecked time after time. The greatest piece of career advice I can give you on dealing with difficult people at work is to set boundaries, stop them in their tracks and do what’s right for you.

For too long you’ve not wanted to rock the boat with these annoying colleagues and as a consequence you’ve rocked your own boat until you got seasick and felt unhappy and uneasy at work.

Be a workplace warrior and stick up for yourself, it’s a simple way to improve job satisfaction and honor yourself.

Madisen Harper was inspired to create a revolution of people who enjoy their work, are high performers, on purpose, can have a laugh and be more than decent human beings to one another. Get her free VIDEO newsletter with 100s of practical tips & move from loathing to liking your job. Madisen recently co-authored a book with Dr Wayne Dyer, Brian Tracy & ‘The Secret’s’ John Assaraf & Michael Beckwith.


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