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How to Handle Difficult Coworkers

Disagreements, emotion on the job can ruin your workday

spinner image Book excerpt: How to handle difficult coworkers
Feel stuck when it comes to navigating a difficult workplace? Here's how to professionally handle tough work situations.
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In any workplace, there may be folks who are hard to get along with. Sometimes you can reduce the pain by staying out of their way. But avoiding their company may not be an option. Here are five suggestions for dealing with your difficult colleague.

1. Don't escalate the problem.

The first rule is to not make things worse by indulging in petty revenge, sulking or gossiping about what a jerk that guy is. Even if he is the one who created the problem, the wise move is to take the high road. If you spend too much time complaining behind his back, your colleagues may think that you're just as bad as he is. When you disagree with him about a project, limit your comments to the work itself. And never get personal.

2. Confide in a trusted friend or colleague.

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While you don't want to indulge in public rants, it can be helpful to describe the situation to another person. If you're feeling angry, hurt or frustrated, it's hard to objectively assess your options. Brainstorming with someone may help you identify ways to address the problem and move on.

3. Understand other personality types.

Just as some are born left-handed and others are right-handed, people tend to fall into various broad personality categories. For example, some of us are extroverts and like to brainstorm out loud, sharing our thoughts long before we've reached our conclusions. This can be annoying to introverts who may prefer a quieter environment where people don't start to talk until they know what they want to say. As you learn more about basic personality types, it's easier to recognize when other people's behavior is not about you — it is just how they are made. Tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can help you understand what makes you tick and suggest strategies for communicating with people whose approach to work is different than yours.

4. Listen in a new way.

Once we start thinking someone is "difficult," we tend to stop hearing what he's saying. As he speaks, we feel defensive and start working on our rebuttals instead of paying attention to the points he's making. Most people aren't skillful at hiding how they feel, so at some level the other party knows he is being ignored, causing the obnoxious behavior to intensify. You can often defuse a tense situation by putting aside your distrustful response and concentrating on what is being said. By listening closely, you may forge a connection and launch a new era of healthy communications.

5. Manage your attitude.

While you can't control other people, you can shift the dynamic by changing how you respond to them. Because you can't really hide your feelings, if you approach someone in a mood of anger, annoyance or contempt, he'll have some sense of it. And his answer to your negative attitude might be an even stronger display of fury or rudeness. You can break the negative cycle by adjusting your own emotional state. If you learn to shift the way you feel, you can dramatically change relationships that traditionally have been rocky.

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Try this approach for adjusting your reaction to a difficult colleague. Start by quietly recalling the emotions you experienced the last time you two clashed. Did you feel hurt, tense or frustrated? Where in your body did you experience the feelings and tension? In your shoulders? Your stomach? Now take a few deep breaths. And as you breathe, relax your shoulders, clenched fists or other body parts that are tight. Visualize each breath as a flow of calm energy, helping to release that tension.

Now that you're more relaxed, try to imagine an alternative emotional state that might feel better and make it easier for you to deal with the colleague. For example, might it help if you could look at that guy with some sense of compassion?

You won't be able to change many of the frustrating situations in your career. But it's easier to move forward once you've learned how to put your frustration aside.

This excerpt was adapted from Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO, by Beverly Jones.

© 2016 Beverly E. Jones. Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO published by Career Press. All rights reserved.

Beverly E. Jones is president of Clearways Consulting, an executive coaching business based in Washington, D.C.

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