Editor’s note: Beginning in March, this column will appear monthly.
It can be draining to deal with difficult people at work. Oftentimes we are part of a system that is interdependent on each other for the final outcome or work product. Simply attempting to avoid difficult people is not a solution.
Encounters with difficult people are not always predictable and it is the unexpected encounters that throw us off the most. A key skill in these situations is to be able to stay calm and composed. The best way to maintain calm is to take a second to scan your body’s response and center yourself through breathing. You won’t really understand the power of breathing to disengage your brain’s threat response until you develop a regular practice of calm breathing. There are many apps and online exercises that can aid you in regulating your breathing during stressful circumstances. The key, however, is not to wait until you find yourself in a stressful situation to pull out your handy dandy breathing technique. You can expect best results with daily practice. Then, when you find yourself in a stressful encounter, it will be more natural to kick your relaxation breathing into gear.
When we feel attacked, we often go into defense mode. We listen with the intent to respond with a comeback rather than listening to understand. You may not feel inclined to listen when dealing with a difficult person. Yet, when you are able to see where they are coming from, you may be better able to address their concerns while meeting your needs as well.
A good strategy in dealing with difficult people is to build connection. This may be the last thing you want to do, but the relationship or connection with another person is the foundation of your interactions. Be intentional about finding time to chat about non-work-related topics and connecting around mutual interests or beliefs. These connections are key to a collaborative work environment, even when you find it difficult to deal with the person otherwise.
Consider also what you bring to the interaction. Do you tend to feel personally attacked, avoid conflict, get emotional? If you find it difficult to do this sort of self-examination alone, you may want to enlist those around you for feedback. You can start with those you trust and feel safe with and expand when you are ready. Do a complete 360 review, intentionally seeking the feedback not just of kind, supportive, caring people in your circle but people that have very different work styles and opinions. Looking at yourself through the eyes of others can be extremely enlightening and a great way to grow.
Finally, you may simply need to deal with the issue head-on. Engage the difficult team member in a private discussion to address the rub. Be sure to own your feelings and your experiences when discussing your encounters. Avoid name calling, attacking, and accusations. Don’t dance around the topic; be very clear about what it is they said or did that was harmful to the team process. This may be the first time anyone has taken the time to address the issue with that person and they could be open to change, especially if you have an established relationship. There is certainly no guarantee that your teammate will respond favorably or that they would even care how their behavior impacts you or others. At least you will know where you stand with them.