The only certainties in life may be death, taxes, and the presence of difficult people. Whether it’s co-workers or anyone you find hard to deal with, we all go through it. Regarding the former, a study among 5,000 office workers titled “The Global Human Capital Report” indicated that 85 percent of co-workers have to deal with interpersonal conflict of some sort at work.
Interacting with difficult people drains our energy, productivity, and even happiness. But those that are oil to your water don’t have to cause more anxiety then they need to. In Find the Fire, I discussed how to tackle this problem. Here, I offer the best of that advice to apply immediately in dealing with tough co-workers or any difficult people in your life.
1. Stop wishing they were different.
It’s critical to remember when dealing with difficult people that you’re trying to change the interchange, you’re not trying to change them. You have to give people the space to be themselves and start from a place of trying to really understand what makes them different from you.
2. Get started fixing it–and start with you.
I’ve coached many a person over my career on a difficult relationship they were having with a co-worker. All too often I’d notice that they were complaining about the co-worker and their acidic relationship, but they weren’t actually taking initiative to do something about it.
Don’t wait for the other person, take the initiative to attack the issue immediately (it won’t get better through stagnation). And start with you in doing so. Ask yourself what you’re doing that might be setting off the other person. Ask if your ego is coming into play and causing you to escalate what otherwise could be innocuous exchanges. Talk to, not about, the other.
3. Understand the why.
You can’t reach an understanding with a difficult person if you don’t seek to understand why they’re behaving in the way that’s grating on your last nerve. When we’re interacting with a difficult person it’s so easy to focus on counterpoints and deflating their arguments and noticing their flaws.
Instead, put your energy into saying more thoughtful things and asking better questions to get to a deeper knowledge of where they’re coming from. You might discover they’re behaving the way they are because they have different reward systems than you do, because they have a serious personal situation in the background, or they have underlying insecurities driving the way they approach you. Knowing any of that would change your exchange.
4. Stop making assumptions about intent.
When you’re constantly subconsciously (or quite consciously) assuming the worst about a difficult person’s intent, your interactions are doomed to fail. The truth is, difficult people often don’t see themselves that way. Don’t let this assumption derail you. Think of times when someone misunderstood your intent–it’s frustrating and naturally leads to further conflict. But it doesn’t have to.
5. Build small bridges.
No one is saying the difficult person has to become your bridge-playing pal. But there is opportunity for you to take small steps to close the gap in what separates you. Find small, genuine compliments to give. Build on commonalities. Show you can be trusted. Acknowledge, don’t argue. Regarding workplace conflicts, psychologist Andy Selig says “Most of the time, all protagonists involved feel like the victim.” So work to lower their defenses slowly over time.
6. Choose not to let them have power over you.
Ultimately, despite all your best efforts, that difficult person still might cause you some anxiety. But the truth is, you decide if you’re going to give someone undue influence over you in your life. Do your level best to improve the relationship than level off the impact they have on you.
Difficult people don’t have to be so difficult. Apply the above and get to mending.