Dealing with Difficult People in the Workplace

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Difficult people and difficult behaviors come in all varieties. You’ve seen them, and maybe have heard others put labels on them. They are the bullies, the naysayers, the complainers, the know-it-alls, the agreeable but undependable. Given the right conditions, we all have some of these tendencies in our work relationships. So what do you do when you encounter them? The most important thing to realize is that most people who consistently exhibit these kinds of behaviors are coming from their negative side instead of from a conscious desire to be difficult. They are often unaware of how they affect others. And that is where the solution lies. This article will look at how to deal with such behaviors compassionately, in a way that deals with the issue but preserves the relationship.

When dealing with troublesome behavior in others, there are some obvious options: 1) get the person fired, 2) let it go, ignore them, or 3) quit or transfer someplace else. Each of these options carries its own set of troubles. It’s not easy to fire someone, nor is it easy to convince someone else to do so. If you try to ignore what’s going on, it may take an emotional toll on you as resentments build up. And in this economy, leaving a present position is usually not an option and even if it is, there are costs both monetary and emotional.

There is another way, but it involves courage and trust. That way is to hold a learning conversation with the person. It is called a learning conversation because the object is for both people to learn more about the other. You both walk away with new insights, perspectives, and oftentimes, new behaviors. The conversation can be conducted one on one, or with a neutral third person facilitator or mediator.

In a learning conversation, the issue is separated out from the relationship, but both are equally important. If there is an issue to be resolved, decide together how to define the issue. Is the report late? Is it defective in some way? Is there a persistent issue in the workplace that needs to be addressed and is not getting addressed? These are some of the issues that cause difficult behaviors between people. So where do you start?

Start with “I messages” such as “I saw, heard, or observed”. Then describe your feelings and make a request for a different behavior. Try to discover the other person’s interests and try to identify their needs. Use active listening including both feelings and facts. Put yourself in their shoes and be prepared to see it differently. Doing this will require energy and might mean that you have to keep your own emotions in check. Still, remember that to struggle to understand another person who is different than you, is natural and it has value. Try to be open, and curious. Remember that every negative personality trait has its positive and valuable sides.

In my practice as a mediator, I have, more often than not, mediated cases between workers where one person started out putting the other in a “difficult person” box. Through a learning conversation, each discovered the needs of the other. One person may have pressures they are not dealing with in a very productive way. The other may not feel acknowledged, valued or understood.

Recognize your own vulnerability to pressure and your own needs for acknowledgment. Ask questions and problem solve for how you can meet each other’s needs. Let the other person know you value them as a person. Break the self-fulfilling cycle of passivity, blaming, and powerlessness by insisting on a problem solving approach.

Dealing with difficult behaviors in other people (and even ourselves) requires courage, trust and patience. When this becomes difficult to do, engage a third person trained in facilitative mediation. The rewards will come as the tension decreases in the workplace.

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