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The Thorn in my Office: Three R’s for dealing with Difficult Colleagues

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

“Workologist” Rob Walker recently responded to a submission about “The Insufferable Colleague” – that person you dread bumping into with your morning coffee, the one you perpetually hope will be assigned to a different position, take on a different project, go to a different office. Many of us have had the experience of feeling pitted against someone impossible in the workplace, but ultimately if we let antagonisms rule and escalate they will only become harder to handle. In the end, getting stuck in a rut with an insufferable colleague can cost a lot in stress and distraction, and can even stifle career advancement. This post is about strategies for handling the challenges of difficult colleagues.

Step Up

The first move is to step up and recognize that your behavior can contribute to making coexistence easier, or more difficult. Even if you feel the root of the problem is on the other side, you can make intentional choices that make the necessary collaborations feasible, and reduce the likelihood of escalations. We can’t control other people’s actions, nor how events play out. But we can control our responses, and a response constitutes half of the equation that leads eventually to outcomes. This doesn’t mean you’re ‘giving in’ to someone problematic. On the contrary, taking control of the communication process, refusing to stoop to negativity, is empowering. Not only will you likely feel stronger and more positive, but your proactive behavior will likely be noticed in your workplace. The ability to communicate with difficult colleagues and control a testy situation is an extremely desirable professional quality, and your good choices might just advance your career instead of letting animosity slow it down.

The Three R’s

This cliché might conjure the image of a school marm, wagging a finger and insisting on “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic,” but we’re reclaiming it for workplace communication. These are the three R’s of communicating with difficult coworkers: relaxation, respect, and responsibility.

Relaxation. When someone has pushed you to the limits of your patience, getting riled up is overwhelmingly tempting. However, shaking it off a little and intentionally relaxing has a dual effect, and it can give you the upper hand. First, the more you internalize antagonism with difficult colleagues, the more it will affect you. Fixated on your building frustration, you will stress more, react more, and let it distract you more from spending your energy doing what you actually care to do. Further, problematic people often feed off of provocations. Take a breath and let what you can roll off your shoulders, you will be the first one to benefit. Second, tension and relaxation manifest in communications and can determine outcomes. The more tense you become in the face of difficult behavior, the more likely the situation is to escalate. Take control, and relax your communications. Try to slow your voice down to an even speed, control the volume and the tone. Open your body posture, and show nonverbally that you are going to handle the situation calmly and with maturity. Make eye contact but keep it comfortable, not overly intense or threatening. You may be surprised to find that the communication plays out very differently, and also that you feel less affected by the behavior of your difficult colleague. By maintaining your relaxation you are much more likely to stay clear headed, make good choices, and avoid workplace conflict.

Respect. This can be just as difficult as relaxing. When you feel disrespected or antagonized, the knee-jerk response is often to lash out, manipulate or disempower the other. However, these reactions are unlikely to serve you in the workplace, and they certainly won’t improve your exchanges with difficult people. This is where you can choose not to stoop to someone else’s low choices. Show your colleagues that you see their humanity, that you take them and their problems seriously, acknowledge that they have feelings and that they are important – even if you strongly disagree. Showing respect for someone who is behaving negatively can have a transformative effect, for a number of reasons. First, a lot people develop negative habits in the workplace because they have become used to feeling disrespected. They may have issues they need to deal with, but are instead busily externalizing them onto everyone else because they feel constantly backed into a corner, as if they are wearing boxing gloves! Showing them respect might first feel like a thankless task, but respecting someone means you entrust them to have full personhood, to be able to do their work, and to problem solve and return the respect. You might significantly reduce antagonism simply by mustering up the courage to show respect, and it may be exactly what your testy colleagues need. On the other hand, if someone is overly confident and trampling on others, respect protects you from accusations and from becoming embroiled in problems they create. It will also help you work through the last of the three R’s.

Responsibility. Responsibility becomes a way to safely delineate boundaries between you and a difficult colleague. If the relationship is very contentious, merely coexisting with that individual may be a challenge. Through relaxed, respectful communication you can state clearly where your responsibilities begin and end, clarify what you can and cannot do, or what it might be inappropriate for you to take on. If you do this respectfully and remain relaxed, you are likely to keep yourself both safe and sane in your exchanges with that “insufferable colleague,” and rise above the absorbing forces of negativity and workplace conflict.

Ultimately, those unhappy forces spiral nowhere but down. Instead of riding them down the drain you can choose to step up, and use the three R’s to come out of a difficult work relationship on top. Learn from the experience, practice your communication skills, and save your energy for cultivating the work and relationships you value most.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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