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Make Dealing with Difficult People at Work Easier

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Like family, your co-workers are a lot of people you just ended up with. Not every one of them is going to be a gem of productivity and likeability. (And even though you, of course, are that gem, some of them might not be delighted by you. Weird, right?) When pressure heats up around the workplace, personality differences that generally are tolerable take on sharper edges.

None of this is news. Personality differences will linger even when all of us are wearing matching unitards on spaceships centuries from now—and beyond. The ways to defuse explosive situations probably won’t change much, either. Once you learn some proven techniques for handling the people you just can’t see eye to eye with at work, you’ll make a whole lot of those challenges easier to handle, from now until we live on the moon.

Make sure it’s not you

You are positively brimming with charming characteristics, it’s true. Nonetheless, every now and then, when Saturn is in Virgo, say, or you spilled coffee on your shirt on the way into work, you might—just maybe—overreact.

Whenever things get heated, your first step should be looking within. The good news here is that if you determine you did overreact or fall into a negative pattern, you’re in control of the fix. Take a close look at what trips your triggers and be ready for the next time you encounter those stressors. Recognizing a pattern is half the battle.

Protect yourself

Not only is it not your job to “fix” difficult people at work, it’s not possible. The best you can do is minimize damage with the choices you make. By setting limits. Sometimes, that means you simply have to step away—just as you’d move a safe distance from someone who lit up a cigarette, says HR consultant and co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 Travis Bradberry in Entrepreneur.

Creating boundaries between yourself and a difficult person might take another form: “A great way to set limits is to ask complainers how they intend to fix the problem,” Bradberry writes. “They will either quiet down or redirect the conversation in a productive direction.”

Confront the issue

Problems left unaddressed rarely, if ever, get solved. If you have a festering issue with a co-worker, a difficult conversation is likely in order. A good indication that it’s time to have the conversation is that you find yourself imagining it over and over—which solves nothing and adds to your stress level.

This kind of conversation isn’t one to wing. Make sure you are ready to state the problem in a nonthreatening way that’s succinct and states the facts neutrally. Rather than making an accusation, focus your statement on the issue: “You’ve been XYZ” becomes “I notice UVW.” Relay the facts rather than recounting actions.

Then shut up. Give your co-worker room to respond. Listen, calmly restate their points to make sure you understand, and suggest a solution. Your objective is to leave the room with a plan for correcting the issue and ensuring it doesn’t happen again.

Err on the side of compassion

The control freak in your office who has to loudly shoot down ideas from others and micromanage every project? They’re scared to death. Fear often drives controlling behavior, whether fear of failure or fear of others’ opinions. Knowing that is likely to completely change how you deal with them—and your success rate.

Of course, that’s just one flavor of difficult co-worker, out of a whole smorgasbord. No matter the particulars of your office nemesis, recognizing their good intentions (we all have them!) can help shift your perspective enough that you can better cope. Discounting good qualities in anyone we’re irritated by or upset with is easy, and then the bad qualities become all we see.

When you get in the habit of finding the qualities you appreciate, and the good motives or your lousy colleagues, you’re likely to find your workdays get a lot calmer, and those nighttime workday ruminations a lot fewer.

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