Six Steps for Dealing With Difficult People

There’s no getting around the fact that some people are just plain difficult. And you know who they are. They come in every form, at different levels, and no workplace is immune.

Differences and disagreements are a natural part of working together. In a healthy organization, where there are appropriate channels and ways of expressing differences, a certain amount of disagreement—or “conflict”—is energizing and often creative. But when differences lead to personal confrontation, inappropriate aggression, or intolerably high levels of tension, you have to do something to mitigate the tension and redirect the behaviors of those involved. This is not only a part of your job, it is also a responsibility of your managers, in partnership with an HR professional.

How you deal with a difficult person depends largely on your self-esteem, your self-confidence and your professional courage. Handling conflicts and difficult people is easier when they are just generally obnoxious or when the behavior affects more than one person. Dealing with difficult people is much tougher when they are attacking you or undermining your professional contribution.

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

2. 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 or peer seems 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. It is vitally important to understand that you are committing to act, unless you both agree actions will only hurt the situation. Otherwise, you risk becoming a whiner or complainer in the eyes of your colleague.

3. Approach the person with whom you are having the problem for a private discussion. Talk to them about what you are experiencing in “I” messages. 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.

4. 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 their impact on you and deny it or try to explain it away. Unfortunately, some difficult people just don’t care. During the discussion, attempt to reach agreement about positive and supportive actions going forward.

5. Follow up after the initial discussion. Has the behavior changed? Gotten better? Or worse? Determine whether a follow-up discussion is needed, and 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. (Consider how badly you want to make peace with the other person and how much you value your current job. Determine whether you have experienced a pattern of support from your boss and peers.) If you answer, “yes,” to these questions, hold another discussion. If not, escalate and move to the next idea.

6. 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—a salute, or place your hand over your heart to indicate a serious wounding.

You can also tell those pain-in-the-butts 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. I don’t think it works to publicly ask the person to stop doing what they’re doing, but you can use more positive confrontational tactics. Their success for you will depend on your ability to pull these tactics off. Each of us is not spur-of-the-moment funny, but if you are, you may want to try the humor approach.

Les Gore is the managing partner of Newton, MA-based recruitment firm Executive Search International

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