8 Steps for Coping with High-Conflict Coworkers

If given a choice, most of us would prefer not to work with people who have difficult personalities. Unfortunately, this is generally not an option.

In addition, how you engage with these co-workers reflects on your own value as an employee. An inappropriate reaction on your part may cast doubt on your judgment, and cause your supervisor to question your ability to handle interpersonal challenges. Even if it is widely accepted that your colleague is “the problem,” it is in your best interest to handle any tough interactions with respect and maturity. While the tips provided here are not always easy, especially when your emotions are running high, you will find the results are well worth the effort.

  1. Do not give others power over your well-being.

    Interacting with difficult colleagues – or even anticipating an interaction – can cause you to tense up, dampen your mood, and produce frustration and anger. In other words, it can ruin your day if you let it! The tips that follow will help you maintain a positive and healthy mindset when dealing with challenging personalities.

  2. Keep an open mind.

    Even if you have a history of negative encounters with a colleague, it is important not to make assumptions. Before deciding if and how to respond in a given interaction, take a step back and spend a few moments calmly evaluating the situation. You might learn, for example, that:

    • The OTHER PERSON has good intentions but is lacking in certain interpersonal skills; is from a culture with different social norms; does not feel physically well, or is suffering from depression or anxiety; is dealing with and distracted by personal problems; is operating under the pressure of tight deadlines; is frustrated or unhappy in his or her job; and/or feels underappreciated at work.

    • YOU resist situations in which another person has a different point of view and/or communication style than you; get unreasonably annoyed by certain traits and behaviors, even when there is no ill will intended; have unrealistically high expectations of other people; let your own moods and emotions influence your interpretation of events; and/or may have played a role in contributing to the negative interaction.

  3. Consider the whole person.

    When you have had repeated negative experiences with a co-worker, you may find yourself viewing him through a narrow lens: He is a difficult person, pure and simple! However, if you make an effort to separate the individual from the issues, you can probably find some good in him. Identify the strengths and positive qualities he brings to the workplace, and appreciate him for it.

  4. Be respectful.

    Be sure to extend to difficult people the same day-to-day courtesies you extend to your other co-workers. Greet them with a smile, express interest in their work, and ask for their input. While this will not necessarily soften their rough edges, ignoring, excluding, or speaking rudely could certainly make the situation worse.

  5. Do not take it personally.

    Difficult people rarely target specific individuals. Rather, their challenging behavior is generally caused by circumstances in their own lives. Often, they are so caught up in their personal issues that they give no thought at all to how they are affecting those around them Recognizing it is not about you will enable you to feel empathy for your co-worker, respond in an appropriate way, and avoid grudges that will further impair your ability to work together.

  6. Do not engage in the drama.

    Avoid responding emotionally or going on the defensive if your colleague does something to upset or anger you. Try to shift the conversation in a more neutral or positive direction if possible. If you feel your self-control weakening, politely excuse yourself and take a short walk to clear your head.

  7. Resist the urge to complain and gossip after a challenging interaction has passed.

    It can be so tempting to share your experience – to tell others how you have been wronged and to swap stories with those who have had similar experiences! The best course of action, though, is to simply move on with your day. Continuing to think and talk about the situation prolongs its effect on your mood, interferes with your focus and productivity, and contributes to a negative work environment.

  8. Take next steps if warranted.

    All of the previous strategies focus on keeping the challenging behavior contained and in perspective. This does not mean, however, that you must tolerate continued mistreatment. If appropriate, bring the issue to the attention of your manager or Human Resources.

For more tips and information about handling the challenging personalities in your life, be sure to check out our Difficult People archive!

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