Dealing with difficult people

We all face challenging situations in the workplace. And while it’s tempting to simply step back and hope that things will improve on their own, they rarely do. The longer we leave things the more likely it is that we’ll avoid interacting with the individual which only makes things worse over time. It’s important to tackle the issue as quickly as possible and by taking the lead to improve the situation, you’ll help to minimise the impact it has on you and others.

Challenging behaviour

We all have our bad days, but daily negative and destructive behaviour from an individual can be challenging to deal with. However, it’s important not to dismiss what might be happening in this person’s life. Have they recently experienced a set-back at work or at home? Have they tended to behave in this way over the longer-term? Perhaps they are naturally like this and it’s not something to take personally.

Your own perception of the person is very important but asking yourself the following questions might help you to clarify the specifics:

  • Do they regularly push their own agenda to the exclusion of other people’s views?
  • Are they aggressive either verbally or physically?
  • Do they tend to blame other people for whatever goes wrong?
  • Do they have a tendency to interrupt others or dismiss others’ views?
  • Do they make hurtful comments to others, or about other people?
  • Do they come across as continually negative and inflexible?
  • Are they generally uncooperative or unwilling to help others?

Once you can define what makes their behaviour challenging, you’re on your way to resolving the issue.

How can I approach the person without making matters worse?

Before you plan your approach, you might like to have a look at How to develop effective communication skills to learn more about the benefits of using assertiveness in difficult situations. Approaching the individual as early on as possible is key to resolving differences and the following approaches will be helpful from the outset.

Approach the person and let them know that you’d appreciate some time to speak with them

They might not even realise that there’s friction between the two of you and may be surprised and regretful to find this out. Then again, they may know exactly what impact they’re having on others. The point is not to assume that they know why you want to speak with them so go into it with an open mind and avoid being defensive when you approach them. If they’re too busy to meet with you right away, ask them to suggest a time and make sure that you have a private space in mind for the conversation.

Try to understand where the other person is coming from

Sometimes, difficult behaviour stems from things we can’t see such as a relationship breakdown, a sick child, financial problems or low self-esteem. While personal issues are no excuse for treating others disrespectfully, keep in mind that they might be struggling in their home life. This is not to say that it is appropriate to ask them what’s happening in their private lives, but be aware that things are not always as they seem. Let them know that you will not disclose any aspect of the conversation to others. Any issues between you and the other person can’t be worked out if they perceive that they can’t trust you.

You might begin the conversation by asking them if they’ve noticed any problems in your relationship. Don’t be upset if they point to you as the problem; again, they may not even be aware of their behaviour and may be feeling defensive. Stay clam and give specific examples of when you’ve felt that things aren’t good between the two of you. Language is important so consider using ‘I’ statements: “I felt…” or “I thought…”. Ask them if they can highlight specific incidents when they’ve felt that things haven’t gone well with you. Listen carefully and try and see their point of view.

Don’t take their behaviour personally

No one should put up with abusive behaviour and if you find that they’re behaving aggressively towards you, you can either try and calm the situation down by letting them know that you want to have a constructive and mutually respectful discussion or, if necessary, you can leave the room and try again when things calm down. Taking things personally will only make the situation worse and it’s easy to get defensive when we feel that we’re being attacked. Respond to their comments in a polite but firm manner and keep in mind that mimicking their behaviour will set you back. Watch your body language too – crossed arms and legs or leaning away from them demonstrates that you’re closed to their viewpoint. Actively listen using a clam tone and open body language.

Work towards a resolution rather than trying to ‘win the battle’

Building a better relationship is your aim rather than winning an argument. Suggest ways to work together in a more productive way and let them know that you’re open to any suggestions they might have. Take on board any constructive feedback they might offer and resist the urge to get defensive. If they tell you that they’d like you to be more patient when asking for their help, take this on board and commit to analysing your own behaviour in the relationship. Remember that relationships involve two people and solutions need to be found together.

Be willing to forgive and move on

Resolving any conflict is impossible if you can’t forgive and move on. Save your energy for developing a better relationship with the person and agree to move on together. If you can’t come to a resolution, agree to disagree. And if the situation remains difficult and it’s affecting your work or wellbeing, speak with your manager for advice or contact the retailTRUST helpline to speak in confidence with a trained advisor. .

If you can’t find a resolution to the problem, seek advice from your HR team line manager, or other internal support team

Your organisation is there to help you in confidence and can assist you to navigate next steps.

Managing conflict in the workplace requires patience, self-reflection and a willingness to find a solution that everyone can live with. And while it can be challenging to get to a good place, you may just find that the ‘other person wants things to be better too.