Dealing with difficult people can be, well, difficult. Whether it be a partner, a peer, or someone in your personal life, difficult people are everywhere. They can damage your career and wreak havoc on your confidence. So, what are you supposed to do? Advice can range from accepting the bad behavior to direct confrontation to mitigating the damages. How you handle a difficult person in your life can lead to long lasting and damaging health effects.
Signs of a Difficult Person
It may seem obvious to you that someone is difficult, but others may not see the issues you do. Difficult people are often poor communicators. For example, a partner or senior with a reputation for yelling has given you an assignment and thought they told you how to complete the task. To them, it’s a routine thing that they have done many times before, so they think that a bare bones or brief explanation should suffice. The problem is you haven’t done that assignment before and need more information to complete it successfully. This poor communication puts you in a tough place—do you ask for clarification, or do the assignment at the risk of doing it wrong? Either way, with this type of person, you are putting yourself in a position to be yelled at or subject to discipline.
Another sign of a difficult person is that they are routinely rude and prone to criticize anything and everything. This type of person is like a cartoon character with a storm cloud perpetually hanging over their head—nothing is ever right, and how terrible it is for them to be subject to such ineptitude all around them! These office curmudgeons are out to suck the enjoyment out of everyone around them, drive morale to dust, and make the working environment miserable.
Other difficult types can be those who are passive aggressive, lack empathy, and are office troublemakers who like to one up or gossip about others. Whatever the type of difficult person you are dealing with, this article will look at both good and bad ways you can deal with a difficult person.
Grin and Bear It—Or Not
Being an attorney is inherently confrontational; arguing is, after all, what you get paid to do. But when the difficult person isn’t opposing counsel or a judge, how do you deal with it? Some lawyers go with the grin and bear it mindset when confronted with a difficult person. If your partner/senior yells or gives unwarranted and harsh criticism, that’s just part of the gig, right? After all, you are paid very well while you are getting yelled at. Taking the abuse can seem like what you are supposed to do, or just how it is in law, but don’t give in to that feeling. Difficult work situations can have a very real negative physical effect on you by adding additional stress and anxiety to your life which won’t go away by grinning and bearing it.
Changing the Dynamic
When confronted with a difficult person, it can be easy to just label that person a crank and try to avoid them for the rest of your life, but that isn’t the best way to deal with the situation. One of the first things you can do when you are dealing with this person is to listen. Take the emotions out of it and really focus on what the other person is saying instead of how they are saying it. While it isn’t fun or professional, sometimes others react in a negative way because they need to blow off steam before they can rationally speak about the issue. Calmly and quietly listen to what they are saying before you react. After they have said what the issue is, give yourself a moment to digest and figure out what your response should be without being defensive or angry. While that is easier said than done, responding with a mindset that you are not going to take this outburst personally can go a long way to easing the tension and getting to the root of the problem. Once you have formulated your response to the situation, use de-escalation techniques to deal with it. If the difficult person is angry because you genuinely messed something up, apologize and give them actionable steps about how you will fix the problem. If you are dealing with a difficult person because they messed something up, try to correct the issue by using “we” phrases, like “How do you propose we fix this situation?” or “We can work through this together.” The purpose of both these techniques is to (hopefully) change future behaviors and create better and more productive interactions with the difficult person. Your end goal is to change the dynamic between yourself and this person and to eliminate the added stress and anxiety brought on by their bad behaviors.
If you are dealing with a mildly difficult colleague, e.g., the gossip, the chronic complainer, or the one-upper types, the best way to deal with them is to disengage to the extent that it is possible. Think of it like a breakup with a significant other—stop giving them free rent in your head, don’t obsess about what they are up to, and leave them to their own bad and irrational behaviors. People who create work drama and tension thrive on others buying into their scheme, so don’t fall for it! Set firm boundaries that you would for any other troublesome person in your life. Just because you work with someone does not mean you have to like them or play their games. Just be professional and only engage with them when you absolutely must. If they try to rope you back in, redirect the conversation to the topic or task at hand.
What do you do if the interaction is more than just someone yelling or being difficult? If you find yourself in a situation that is abusive or dangerous, get out of that situation fast. Look to see if a colleague is nearby and call them over to intervene, or use them as an excuse to leave the abusive person. After you have safely removed yourself, document it and report what happened to your superiors or to human resources. Ask to eliminate or at least limit any future one-on-one interactions with that person. If the situation becomes untenable, it may be time to leave the job altogether.
Look Out for Yourself
After you’ve finished dealing with the difficult person, make sure you take time to reflect and de-stress. You don’t want to carry around the negative feelings you got from that bad interaction. Go for a walk, talk to a trusted friend, or journal your experience—do something that will effectively relieve that stress. Share your experience with others to get outside, constructive feedback on the situation. Take the time to reflect on the interaction and what went well or not so well. It is important to carve out some time to move past the negative feelings from the interaction to help yourself deal with the effects in the long run.
Dealing with difficult people can be stressful, draining, and sometimes scary. Additional stress can harm your health, so finding a way to eliminate difficult people in your life could very well save it! If you find yourself in a situation where you must deal with them, take the time to use these ideas to make your working life better.
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