Almost everyone has dealt with difficult situations–and difficult people – at work. And if you haven’t, you probably will.
Some personalities simply don’t mesh well. Some coworkers might always be difficult to deal with because of the way they deal with stress or responsibility.
However, most difficult situations at work are temporary. And, sometimes, coworkers go through tough times that affect their ability to work through conflict with as much grace as you might expect.
So, here are some tips to deal with difficult coworkers and overcome tough workplace obstacles you might encounter. You can’t easily resolve all situations, but these steps should help you work toward conflict resolution without losing your temper--or your job.
Stop and breathe.
First, take a page out of the most basic conflict resolution handbook, and stop before you do or say anything you might regret.
If someone or some situation is difficult at work, you are likely feeling angry, frustrated, upset, unheard, or all of the above. That usually means your first reaction will not be the most professional or productive.
When you realize you’re about to explode as a result of a difficult situation or coworker, stop and take a deep breath. Do whatever you can to calm down, whether that’s breathing, counting to twenty, meditating, or something else.
Try to see the situation from the other perspective.
Once you feel calmer, do your best to start thinking about the situation from the perspective of the person or people with whom you disagree.
Put yourself in their shoes. This might help you recognize their intention or perhaps why they are being difficult.
Does this person have a tough role at the office? Have they been dealing with trying times at home? Might they be overwhelmed by the situation at hand and need help tackling it?
Asking these types of questions will help you empathize with others and maybe even see a path toward new solutions that you didn’t consider before. Empathizing will also ensure that you treat the other person or people with respect.
Practice and review your response.
However you plan to respond, verbally or in writing, you should write out, practice, and review your response before you deliver it to your coworker or group of colleagues.
Hopefully you already stopped to breathe, but you might still feel pretty passionate about your position. The first draft of your response is the place to get out your frustrations.
Then, once you read and review it, you can see where in your response you can be kinder, more professional, and more understanding. You might throw out your first response altogether.
Your first instinct might end up containing some words and messages you actually don’t want to share. So, by practicing that first response and reviewing it a few times, maybe even taking a night to sleep, you can come up with one that more accurately reflects your feelings and intentions.
Confer with people you trust (without gossiping).
If you still feel stumped about what to do, consider conferring with friends, colleagues, or family members you trust about the situation. This can help you gain an outside perspective. Sometimes people who aren’t involved in the situation can see it from a new angle and give you solid advice.
Of course, a caveat: avoid gossiping about your coworkers, especially with fellow coworkers. This will likely backfire and can be counterproductive.
Instead, try to talk about the situation as objectively as possible and ask for advice. Make sure you’re sharing because you actually want to come up with a solution--not because you just want to complain.
Share your perspective with those involved.
When you’re ready, share your perspective of the situation with the person or people involved in the conflict in question.
As confidently but as calmly as you can, explain your side of the story and your goals for resolution.
Help the other person or people understand where you’re coming from, so they can empathize with you like you’ve been empathizing with them.
The other part of the conversation you have with those involved requires active listening. This means really listening, without waiting for your turn to speak.
Consider repeating what you hear as you understand it once the other parties involved are finished speaking.
If you aren’t understanding, try listening again or asking for clarification.
Focus on actionable steps.
As you try to come up with solutions to the conflicts you’re having, focus on taking actionable steps.
You can go back and forth about perception and feelings for hours, days, or even weeks, but if you want to get to an effective solution, you need to focus on actions you can actually take.
Even if you can just focus on small steps forward, confer with your colleagues about next steps.
Remember, you can’t control anyone.
Sometimes your difficult coworker or situation won’t want to listen or take actionable steps. No matter what, you have to know that you can’t control anyone else.
You can only control your own reaction and your own actions. Some people don’t want to resolve the situation, and you can’t control that.
Take care of your mental health and know that you’ve done all you can in that case.
If all else fails, speak with an authority who can help.
Once you’ve tried all you can to work through the situation and resolve your conflict, and that still doesn’t work, you can turn to an authority who can take it from there.
Talk to human resources, a boss, or another figure within your organization who can help you deal with the situation and talk to your coworker.
Hopefully you don’t have to get to this point where you have to file a formal complaint. But if you do, make sure you have written evidence of your interactions.
Be willing to do the work.
Tough workplace situations and difficult coworkers are trying and tedious. But they are almost inevitable.
The good news is: if you can do the necessary work to communicate your wants and needs, take responsibility for your own part in any conflict, and work through each moment with professionalism and respect, you should be able to overcome work obstacles and come out of them stronger than before.