How NOT to Deal with Difficult People at Work

Stuck in a contentious job and don’t know what to do? The new book “Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People)” can help steer you through the conflicts that crop up in the workplace.

A man peers over the top of a cubicle at work.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We’ve all had a co-worker, boss, family member, neighbor, you name it, someone who just makes life miserable. And who hasn’t pulled out more than a few hairs from total frustration dealing with the chaos they create?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a handbook of instructions on managing unpleasant people? Well, there is, and it is called Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) (opens in new tab) by Amy Gallo, published by Harvard Business Review Press and hitting bookstores in September.

It is just a great read, and Amy describes situations we have all been in. (I even saw myself in the book – both as a victim and one very unpleasant person, me!)

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I sat down with Amy and discussed the things that most of us do wrong when faced with impossible people, or people who we think are impossible. She provided a by-the-numbers approach on what not to do and ways of heading off major confrontations.

1. Suppress your emotions.

The result: If we do this long enough, we are likely to explode. Well-meaning people often say, “Just ignore it. Suck it up!” But the problem with that attitude is that later on, emotional leakage occurs, and we end up expressing feelings in unproductive ways because we just can’t manage them any longer. Or we take our frustrations out on an innocent co-worker or family member.

To avoid that, psychologists recommend these steps to plug your leaking emotions:

  • As you feel your anger increase, take the time to ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Name the emotion.
  • Next ask, “What thoughts are causing these emotions?” Our thoughts drive our emotions. If you can correctly identify the thoughts that are impacting your emotions, things become much more clear.
  • Finally, analyze whether you viewed the event that upset you objectively. Be careful to not let your brain fool you into believing that you are always right.

2. Retaliate! Fight fire with fire!

Consequences: By matching their behavior, the result is that you intensify the feeling of being on opposing sides, rather than giving the dynamic between you a chance to change. Retaliating also makes you look bad in the eyes of co-workers, and may even violate your values. You want to act in ways that you can feel proud of, not that you wish you could take back later.

3. Hope that you colleague will just leave the organization.

Result: You end up biding your time rather than taking steps to improve the relationship.

Thinking, “Great! If they leave, everything will be much better!” may be flawed as the problem could be with the organizational culture itself. And this may be well beyond the ability of co-workers to address or cure.

Often, it is the system that is the problem –- one that encourages bad behavior. Incentives might be rewarding the wrong things. The culture might be toxic. And if you are in that type of a work environment, everyone is better off trying to create a workable situation with colleagues instead of just hoping that things will improve on their own.

4. Assume that the reason your relationship isn’t working is entirely their fault.

Result: We fail to see our role in the dynamic, which is the only thing we can actually control. By placing the blame entirely on them, we fail to ask ourselves, “What role have I played in this disagreement?”

Thinking that we have done nothing to contribute to the negativity makes it difficult to find solutions. It becomes an “all or nothing” event, where we make ourselves powerless to influence a resolution.

5. React in the moment. Don’t analyze what happened or why you feel this way.

Consequences: Our brains are hard-wired to protect us. Often, in an effort to conserve resources, our brains make snap judgments about what is going on around us and how we should react. Often our responses are flawed because we have not taken the time to evaluate the various issues that have led to the conflict.

Allowing time to pass gives us the ability to see things more clearly and less defensively. Time additionally permits the gathering of information, which can either strengthen our case, or prove to us that the other person was in fact correct.

6. Tell them that they are the perfect example of someone who is (fill in the blank, such as passive aggressive, a political operator, pessimist, credit thief – you name it).

Consequences: You may make them even angrier and defensive, which is unlikely to lead to any behavior change.

Rather that labeling them, it is best to describe your observation of their behavior and the impact it is having on you. Engage them in a discussion about their perception about what happened and why they did what they did. They may have a rational explanation that you did not see.

7. Give up after one attempt to resolve the issue.

Consequences: You miss out on an opportunity to turn the relationship around.

View your efforts to resolve the problem as an experiment where you try different approaches, and learn along the way what works and what doesn’t. One attempt – no matter how valiant – rarely solves the problem!

8. Think, “I am not a difficult person! I’m the easiest person in the world to get along with.”

Consequences: We are terrible judges of our own behavior and our impact on other people. At one time or another, we are all difficult people! Therefore, be charitable, and take the time to try and understand why that person is acting the way they do.

Amy concluded our interview with an observation that applies to us all:

“None of us are our best selves all the time. Empathy for your co-worker and what they are going through is rarely a waste of time or energy.”

Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) is the ideal gift for a recent graduate or someone who needs helpful advice on dealing with life’s challenges from a big sister. Her name is Amy Gallo.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."