How to work with difficult colleagues

As in all areas of life where we spend a lot of time with other people, we sometimes encounter people we feel that we cannot get along with. This is completely normal. The more time we spend with people, the more likely we are to notice behaviours that we don’t like. In the workplace that is especially difficult, because we want to maintain a professional appearance and often can’t avoid people forever. While we can’t control other people’s behaviour, we are able to find ways to change ours.

Tips for dealing with difficult colleagues

Here are some ways through which you can learn to work with colleagues professionally and in ways that will not affect your professional future negatively.

  • Check in with your stress levels.
    Most of the time humans are under internal and external stressors. This means that we might already feel stressed, before a conflict is triggered. This can make it easier for social interactions to escalate. Check in with yourself: Notice how you are feeling and whether anything is increasing your stress right now. A great variety of factors can influence this; From wearing uncomfortable clothing, to a difficult meeting before or after your encounter. What are these factors for you at this moment? Could it be that they are influencing your perception of the social interaction?
  • Take a deep breath.
    Sometimes we just don’t have the capacity to deal with all of the information of the current situation. A good strategy to preserve ourselves then is to breathe in deeply and breathe out slowly. Slowing the breath down is a message to your nervous system to switch from the “fight-or-flight” system to the calmer, relaxed state. Most likely, the other person will not even notice that you are focusing on your breathing instead of them. This is a  short-term technique for use in the moment. You can think of it as a sneaky zen-moment, you are taking for yourself.
  • Am I (unconsciously) fueling the altercation?
    When we become angry at another person’s behaviour we can easily view the situation as entirely their fault. Even if the situation is objectively a mistake on their part, it is wise to consider how your behaviour might be exasperating the conflict. A good start is to reflect on one’s own behaviour, which includes both your verbal and non-verbal communication. Are you trying to understand the other person’s point of view, or could it be that you are perhaps too set in your own understanding? Often how we respond to someone influences how they will react in return. Try to understand their point of view and ask questions to get a better idea of what they are trying to tell you.
  • Request some extra time before you answer.
    You could leave it at that, or offer to let them know, after you checked your calendar, when you would be able to give the task the attention that it requires. This way you are also allowing yourself a time-buffer to think the situation over and come up with a better reply.
  • Why does the person act the way they do?
    It is easier to get annoyed about other people’s behaviour because often we lack a frame of reference. We don’t know why they are behaving the way they do, but it is a mistake to assume that the other person’s intention is to annoy you or cause you harm every time. When you feel that you are getting annoyed at something they said it is wise to ask yourself: “What are they really trying to say?”. Rather than snapping back, ask for more context.
  • What are the other person’s values?
    Values guide all of us in our actions and the way we interact with others. By knowing the values of the other person you can learn to diffuse difficult situations. For example, if you know that the other person especially values working hard, you can appeal to that value by acknowledging it and for example pointing out that you think the same way. In this example you could say something along the lines of: “It is obvious to me that you have been working very hard on this task, and I appreciate the effort you have made.”
  • Clear communication is kind communication.
    In the same way that it is good to appeal to the other person’s values, it is important to communicate your own boundaries politely, but clearly. Let them know clearly, but politely, what your issue with the situation is. For example, if your colleague is asking you to do a task for them, but you know that you have other tasks that have to take priority first you could say: “I am sorry, but at the moment I do not have the capacities to give this task the attention that it needs.”
  • What can I learn from this interaction – The power of gratitude.
    This situation, however annoying and frustrating it might be, can be a useful lesson. Often it is certain types of people that seem to be “pushing our buttons”. This is often due to our own history and experiences. It is useful to take note of the “type” that usually annoys you, because it can tell us a lot about yourself. For example, by realizing that having other people directly, or indirectly, question your authority in the field you could learn that it is unnecessary cognitive barriers that are holding you back. A common reason for why we react negatively about having our authority questioned is a worry that we are not good enough at our job.

If you have colleagues that seem to be pushing your buttons each time you encounter them, you can use the Auntie services. Choosing the packages “Leading Me” or “Stressed Out” can be a good starting point to evaluate the situation and implement some changes to help yourself through it. If you are a manager, you might want to book the package “Dream Team in Process” to help your team work together more smoothly.

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