How to deal with difficult people

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It happens. If you’ve been working for any amount of time, you’ve certainly encountered someone who just rubs you the wrong way, be it a colleague, a client or a vendor. Here’s how to deal.

Focus on your objectives

The nice thing about work relationships is that they aren’t personal. Generally speaking, you have to work with this person to meet your objectives, and this should be your primary focus.

Not only do you have to get something out of this person, but it’s also smart to consider who you want to be in your interactions with them. If you allow this person to erode your professionalism, your good humour or the quality of your work, you’ve lost and they’ve won.

Michelle Obama famously said “When they go low, we go high” and it’s critical for your career to take the high road with difficult people. How you deal with difficult people shape how others – your colleagues, your employees and your leaders – see you, so it’s in your own best interest to keep your cool and be your normal, professional self.

A trick I use when writing an email to a difficult person is that I switch the person’s name to the name of someone I like, then I compose my email. I realized early on that it helps me to manage the tone in which I address the person and helps me to make sure that I’m being my most professional self. Once I’m done, I switch the name back to the difficult person’s name then send the email. This helps me to guarantee that the difficult person won’t get the best of me.

Watch your words

It’s one thing when you have to occasionally deal with a difficult person, but it’s another when you have to deal with the person regularly. It doesn’t feel good. It sometimes helps to decompress by talking about your interactions with a sympathetic third party such as another colleague, your spouse or a friend.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do this but be mindful about how much you talk about the difficult person – for your own sake. If you’re talking about this person every day or every week, or storing up things the person did to go and talk about it with your sympathetic third party, you’re letting this difficult person run your relationships.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Watch your communications with your loved ones. Are you always talking about this difficult person? Are you looking for reasons to insert your experiences with this difficult person into the conversation? Do you spend your time gossiping about this difficult person with a colleague? Remember that you’re a great, loving and interesting person. You have other things to talk about, such as your goals, activities you do with your family or the things that you’re grateful for.

Do we need to get things off our chest sometimes? Yes, we do. But we don’t need to talk about what the difficult person did all the time. This keeps the difficult person alive and renting space in your head and renting space in your relationships. Believe it or not, even your sympathetic third party will appreciate it if you ease up with talking about the difficult person. Even if this friend, spouse or family member can listen endlessly, they love you and it’s heavy for them to see you in pain and not be able to do anything about it.

Stop talking about the difficult person so much and allow yourself free time to enjoy your life. Give yourself the chance to just forget about them.

Make it work

You’re not going to get along with everyone and you’re not expected to get along with everyone, but when you have to interact with the difficult person regularly, you have to find a way to make it work, for your own peace of mind.

If you decide that you want to get to a neutral place with this person, to a place where they don’t bother you, it helps to humanize the person. It helps to see them as a whole person, with their own life and their own likes and their own positive traits, as opposed to seeing them as a totally flawed person who can do nothing right and exists for the sole purpose of making your life difficult.

An approach that I take to humanize a difficult person is that I ask for help from someone I trust who also knows the difficult person. The way in which I ask for help is that I ask this person something like “I’ve noticed you seem to get along well with X. I’m having a hard time but I want to have a professional relationship. What do you appreciate about X? or How do you deal with this X?” I guarantee, you’ll be blown away by the response.

The trusted person will help you to see the difficult person with new a perspective and you’ll learn a bit about them. Will you adore the difficult person and be BFFs with them? No, and that’s not the goal. You just want to see this person as human. When you start to see the difficult person as an individual instead of a bunch of negative traits whose sole existence is to make your life difficult, you can get to a place of neutrality. And once you feel neutral about them, the person ceases to be difficult.

What about going for coffee?

In the corporate world, a popular recommendation for resolving a relationship with a difficult person is to for coffee with them and talking about things and get to know them. It’s not bad advice but it isn’t very effective unless your goals are specific and more on the “political” side.

If, for “political” reasons, it’s good for you to be seen with the difficult person going for a casual coffee or lunch to create the optics of an amicable relationship and quash rumours about a disagreement, then a little social outing will serve this purpose.

With that said, sitting across from someone, feigning interest in their personal life then telling them what you find difficult about them will only create further tension. It’s extremely difficult to change someone’s opinion, especially about themselves. Imagine the reverse for a moment: how would you feel if someone you asks you to go for coffee then proceeds to point out perceived flaws of yours that may or may not be accurate. How would you feel? This would probably put you on the defensive. Worse still, what if didn’t have a problem with you to begin with?

Having a coffee and talking things out works when there is a pre-existing personal relationship like with friendships, love relationships or family relationships. This works because the love is there and maintaining the relationship matters to both people. Work isn’t the same. The bottom line is that we can’t control other people; we can only control ourselves, our mindset, our behaviour and how we react to them. Actions speak louder than words, and in most cases, finding a way to work with the person is the most effective course of action.

Extreme cases

If you are in an extreme situation and there are serious risks, your best bet is too keep your cool, stay professional and document your interactions with the person. This will help to have proof about what’s going on, so that when you decide to act, you can back yourself up with the facts.