How to Deal With Difficult People at Work

One of the most common issues we see organisational leaders face throughout their careers is a relationship breakdown with someone in the workplace.

Think back to a time when you have sensed a conflict with someone more senior to you, or a disconnect with a divisional colleague or team member.

As a result, it takes the pressure off the other person needing to change too much in order for the relationship to move forward, because you have made the change happen.

If not handled appropriately even small areas of disconnect can have a snowball effect on both your own personal wellbeing in the workplace and the business at large.

Often, when clients ask me about how to move past a difficult relationship the tendency is to focus on how to “fix” the other person. As human beings, we have a natural tendency to blame others as opposed to taking personal ownership.

However in these situations, if you want to create a change, that change needs to start with you.

The world you experience is a reflection of you and the way people react and treat you is generally a direct reflection of the way you behave and treat others.

Ultimately, if you want someone else to change their behavior, the critical thing to do first is to look at what you’re doing and look at how you can do that differently using the following framework:

1. Demonstrate genuine care for the other person

As you go about negotiations or conversations, remember that your chief end is to show genuine concern for the other person’s welfare. This means approaching the situation with humility and compassion – and thinking practically about how you demonstrate care. Perhaps some meaningful and sympathetic words which show you have understood the situation might be appropriate. Allowing some time off work or paying for counselling or mediation when needed are all practical ways to demonstrate care.

2. Look in the mirror

Firstly, you should be thinking about how you are acting. What’s your tone of voice? What’s the context? What sort of language are you using?

3. Seek to change

Start to look at what you could do differently. How could you evoke a different reaction from the person you are experiencing a challenge with?

4. Understanding is the goal

Be curious. This is the medicine to most conflicts. By aiming to really understand the other person and their issues, you show a genuine willingness to engage with the issue – which diffuses conflict instantly. Practically, here are some pointers to help you work toward understanding:

  • Ask how they are feeling – what is or isn’t working for them?
  • Ask what they are really wanting? What would the ideal outcome of the situation be for them?
  • Ask what they expect from you?
  • Ask for genuine criticism and feedback on their experiences of you.

5. Be vulnerable

Choosing to be honest and open with the other person breaks down walls between you. Be vulnerable and willing to explain how you are feeling. Share your own experiences and emotions. This will encourage shared honesty and build trust.

6. Actively listen

Just because you are listening, doesn’t mean the other person can tell you’re listening. Learn the art of active listening. Show responsiveness to what they are saying, ask questions, interject where appropriate. All of these things create an assurance that you are listening and do care.

7. Remember, your experiences reflect you

The treatment we receive from others is often a reflection of their experiences of us. We can easily break this cycle by being thoughtful of our behaviour towards others. Self awareness is key – listen and respond to feedback. Don’t assume that others are wrong in their interpretation of your personality, seek to really investigate how you affect those you interact with.

8. Follow through

There is nothing more frustrating than a conversation which never gets followed through on. You are seeking to build trust, so do what you say you will do. If you promise to review the situation, request mediation, ask for someone’s advice or work on a particular problem – then do it. When trust is broken, it takes consistent behaviour to win it back. This also means not promising anything you can’t deliver.

The idea is to make it easier for them to trust you. If they have been hurt, they need time to recover. But, more than anything – they need to be able to trust you. Committing to clear communications, respectful interactions, accountability or other methods of rebuilding trust can be a great way to establish a healthier relationship moving forward.

All of this will help you build a better sense of connection and trust – which is the foundation of any strong relationship. You might be surprised at how quickly you can turn things around.


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