10 Ways To Deal With A Difficult Coworker

Sometimes, it's because they have difficult personalities, and sometimes it's because you hate your job and are feeling stuck — making you the Negative Nancy.
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Illustrated by Ariel Davis.

Articles on why you have colleagues you can’t stand abound: Sometimes, it’s because they have difficult personalities, and sometimes it’s because you hate your job and are feeling stuck — making you the Negative Nancy.

We spend so much of our days, weeks, and lives at work, that it is easy to take a difficult situation with a colleague personally. But rather than sitting and simmering, try to be proactive if you can and make the best of a less than ideal situation. Here are some ways to do that.

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.

Launching a charm offensive can be tricky. If it’s obvious to all involved that you just don’t get along, you risk looking fake, or passive-aggressive — neither of which is flattering. But, if you can manage to consistently interact with a difficult person on even the warm side of cordial, you might melt their ice — and make your own days better.

A 2010 study in the Journal of Social Psychology and another published in 2011, in the Journal of Happiness Studies, suggested that performing small, good deeds for others can have a mood-boosting effect on the doer.

“The researchers made two big findings. First, consistent with the British study [in the Journal of Social Psychology], people in general felt happier when they were asked to remember a time they bought something for someone else — even happier than when they remembered buying something for themselves. This happiness boost was the same regardless of whether the gift cost $20 or $100,” Greater Good Magazine wrote.

“But the second finding is even more provocative: The happier participants felt about their past generosity, the more likely they were in the present to choose to spend on someone else instead of themselves. Not all participants who remembered their past kindness felt happy. But the ones who did feel happy were overwhelmingly more likely to double down on altruism.”

So, offer to buy a cup of coffee for the Office Grump, or even treat them to lunch if you can. They might thaw, knowing that you aren’t secretly imagining their downfall, plus, you’ll feel good, too.

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.

You might have two reasons for deciding to spend more time with a coworker that rubs you the wrong way. One is that it's part of your efforts to disarm them with congeniality; another is that they may be going through something you know nothing about.

If their grievance is about someone else, especially a superior, you may not want to go off on a gossipy tangent. Jane Sunley, the founder and CEO of the HR consultancy Purple Cubed, told Fast Company about the potentially damaging effects of engaging in office drama, saying, "You may be finding rapport with some people, but you're alienating everyone else."

Do your best to stay neutral, but see where they're coming with. Knowing that they have at least one person who knows what's up could turn things around.

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.

When someone you often disagree with starts talking, it's hard to shut down the voice in your head that's "La la la!"-ing over everything they say. However, a more effective way to head off this and actually arguments may be to just let them talk.

Chris Voss, a former lead hostage negotiator for the FBI, suggests that you "listen closely while they are speaking and then, repeat back to them what you hear. [Keep going] until they say 'that’s right' — which is different from 'you're right.'" The difference between the two, Voss told R29, is that the first is a signal that they believe you understand, while the second is a sign of frustration, meant to appease you and end the conversation. (Think, Alright, alright, you're right, whatever...)

You might learn that they are experiencing something you had no idea about at work — or, that you could be doing something differently, and better, yourself. Courtney A. Kemp, the creator of Power on Starz, once learned that other colleagues found her intimidating. While that isn't an excuse for bad behavior on their part, it may give you more understanding about where their reactions are coming from.

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.

In her book How to Have a Good Day, Sevenshift CEO Caroline Webb suggested that people hoping to inject more positivity into their days, start out with an intention: What’s my aim? What’s my attitude? “Acknowledging that you’re grumpy or tired allows you to see how those things may affect you and remind you of what really matters,” Webb explained.

So, take five, 10, or as much of a break as you can get to stop and collect yourself.

Time wrote about the effect of deep breathing on people’s moods and brains, looking into a paper published in Science, which showed that “breathing can have a direct effect on the overall activity level of the brain.”

You might not even need to leave your job. In an intense moment, close your eyes and practice deep breathing to get re-centered and find your calm.

“You might not even need to leave your job. In an intense moment, close your eyes and practice deep breathing to get re-centered and find your calm.”

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.

Previous research has shown that saying nice things about your coworkers can create a better-functioning work environment for all.

If you work with someone who's hard to handle, especially in a way that obstructs your work, hear them out. Meet up outside of the office and talk it out. Listen to their grievances, and try to think about ways to commend them for the good work they do.

You don't have to rush to "fix" their problem — they might not want, or be open to, suggestions. But you can do your best to validate the effort they put into certain areas. Sometimes, that acknowledge is all many people need to get back on track.

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.

If your workplace has a toxic company culture, filled with needless snark, biting comments, and all-out email warfare, it might be hard to not join in. What good could one drop of kindness do in a sea of BS? Sometimes more than you think.

Earlier this year, Christine Porath, an associate business professor at Georgetown University, told Mercury News about the cumulative, damaging effects of incivility at work. In a poll she conducted, 80 percent of people “lost time on the job worrying about even low-intensity indignities, while 78 percent became less committed to their employer and half decided to put in less effort,” they wrote. “In a study of 4,500 doctors and nurses, 71 percent linked condescending, insulting or rude behavior to staff becoming inattentive and making medical errors; 27 percent knew of bad behavior leading to patients’ deaths.”

You may not have time to sit down and indulge in friendlier conversation, but Porath suggests a few simple things to do to keep the piece, including smiling, acknowledging others, and saying “please” and “thank you.”

Meeting a difficult coworker’s bad attitude with complete chill can sometimes surprise and disarm them. It’ll also prevent you from entering the race to the bottom.

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.

Additionally, one of Webb's solutions to dealing with a frustrating situation or problem is writing it down. (Just the facts, without your embellishments, i.e. "He did ____ and it's because, of course, he sucks.") Then, thinking about how your "best self" would handle the situation.

You aren't Beyoncé, and you likely don't actually know her (sorry) — but you can imagine what she might do in a difficult interaction. Same goes with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who recently silenced her colleague Justice Neil Gorsuch's showboating with a concise rejoinder, just by knowing her stuff.

Your "heroine" or best self doesn't have to be passive; she just might find a way to respond that doesn't add fuel to the fire.

Everyone has different comfort levels when it comes to going out with coworkers outside of work. For parents, after-work drinks can mean choosing between being seen as uptight or out of touch, and paying lots of money for a babysitter. For teetotalers (who are sober because of religious, health, or just generally personal reasons), abstaining can be seen as thinking you're better than, or provoke uncomfortable questions.

At the same time, going out with colleagues for a drink may lead to greater social and financial capital. You might learn more about what is happening behind the scenes of your job that still affects your work, and get insight into why the difficult person at your job always seems to be in a mood. Give them a chance; the conversation could be enlightening. And if not a drink, maybe a walk in the park at lunch could accomplish the same very thing.

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.

Sometimes, a good rule to follow when someone is being difficult is to assume good intentions.

It's easy to want to snap at someone who takes the wrong tone with you; you don't want to set a precedent that they can engage with you however they wish. However, waiting a beat before responding, and even moving forward with kindness, can allow for the possibility that the other person isn't trying to treat you like crap. They may be in a bad mood at the moment — or even perpetually — but it has nothing to do with you.

Psychology Today published a few examples of how to do this, inspired by etiquette expert Emily Post. For one, they note, "oftentimes, you can break the cycle of rudeness by empathizing with the root of someone's cantankerous behavior as a sign that he or she is unhappy, and be kind."

A study published in the journal Emotion showed that roughly 12 minutes of movement can ”[help] relieve negative emotions,” and override the effects of boredom and dread. “Factors like good weather or a walking buddy weren’t even necessary for a walk to work its magic,” reported HuffPost.

So, give yourself a reprieve. Take just five minutes to yourself to go the bathroom, walk around the floor, grab water, and even step outside if you can. Distance can make the situation seem less dire.

Once you get home, you might dream up a more intricate escape plan — like eventually leaving your job. Even the act of detailed fantasizing about a new gig (researching new jobs, updating your résumé, doing some recon on LinkedIn) might remind you that you that there are other colleagues and jobs in the sea.

By: Judith Ohikuare

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