Dealing With Difficult People At Work

Dealing With Difficult People At Work
Dealing With Difficult People At Work

Conflict is a normal and natural part of human interaction, in the workplace and everywhere else.  Generally, the short-term cost of resolving conflict is negligible compared to the cost of leaving conflicts unresolved.

Conflicts invariably arise between individuals in the workplace, in departmental “turf wars,” or between the organization and its customers or suppliers. Some studies suggest that 30-40% of a manager’s day is spent dealing with interpersonal conflict. The inability to deal with anger and conflict in the workplace may result in a loss of productivity and adversity affect employees.

We are imperfect in our interactions with one another.  Even when we attempt to act in good faith, there may be either real or perceived unfair treatment, emotional abuse, discrimination, sexual harassment, anger, hostility, or even violence at work. Difficult behavior will only get worse unchecked, setting a bad example and causing hidden costs for the corporation.

Most conflict revolves around unfulfilled needs, primarily the psychological needs for control, recognition, affection, and respect. These needs are natural.  We all have them. Our natural desire becomes unacceptable only when past problematic behavior has been reinforced in fulfillment of these needs. Managers must not reward difficult behavior.


“Don’t take it personally is easy to say but hard to remember when we are blazing with anger, frustration, or confusion at another, who we want to label as stupid, insecure or worse. Use your energy to find productive ways to interact.  It’s not easy to fight the same war every day. Change something!


Conflict resolution teaches us to focus on interests rather than positions.  A position is something we demand. An interest is the driving force behind that demand.  An interest is usually a basic need, desire, concern or fear.

To simplify things, let’s take a concrete example.  Bob is new to the company, and is in conflict with Tim, who has been there for years.   Bob says to Tim “I am sick of you being such a perfectionist, and trying to control everything around here!“  Bob’s position is that Tim is a perfectionist and control freak who is hard to work with.  Bob’s underlying interest may be a need for further training and a fear of competition with his highly skilled co-worker.  Tim isn’t trying to compete with Bob at all. But a fear need not be well founded to drive conflict.

The point is that our interests, not our positions, hold the key to resolution.  Once Bob ceases to fear Tim’s competition, Tim’s perfectionism will become irrelevant and the conflict will end.

For every interest there usually exist multiple solutions. Too often people simply adopt the most obvious position as the solution.   By looking behind opposed positions for the motivating interests, you can often find an alternative position, which meets not only your interests but those of other parties to the conflict as well.

Reconciling interests rather than compromising between positions works because under opposed positions lie many more interests than conflicting ones.

When a coworker feels threatened by a “perfectionist” and that feeling boils over into overt hostility, these people could become locked in conflict.   Both may want stability in the workplace and a good relationship with each other. Even as positions harden, underlying interests are unexpressed.


When people in conflict to become angry, the conflicting parties’  bad feelings become entangled with their discussions of substance.   People tend to see what they want to see. They cherry-pick facts and information, and focus  on those that confirm their perceptions.  It is important to discuss each other’s mistaken perceptions, which often drive conflict.


Listening is an art by which we use empathy to reach across the space between us. Passive attention doesn’t work. Not only is listening an active process, it often takes a deliberate effort to suspend expression of our own needs and reactions.  To listen well you must hold back what you have to say and control the urge to interrupt or argue.

Suspending your needs long enough to hear the other person out is part of willing yourself to listen, but suspending your needs is not the same as suspension of critical thought. Stay engaged in what the speaker is saying.  Know if they are making sense.  Listening well is often silent but never passive.

Effective communication is not achieved simply by taking turns talking.  It requires a concerted effort at mutual understanding.  A good way to promote understanding is to take time to restate the other person’s position in your own words then ask her to correct or affirm your understanding of her thoughts and feelings.


Emotions play an important role in everyday behavior, and there is no thought, attitude, idea, or action that does not have a related emotional content.  We often suppress or disguise our emotions, but they do exist and exert their force.  For example, when a co-worker becomes angry at something you have said, instead of expressing the anger (which might violate workplace norms) he may suddenly request sick leave for the rest of the day.

In any relationship, certain tolerable limits of emotional communication are established and these boundaries often do not include an honest exchange of feelings.. But if unacceptable behavior has been reinforced, or our emotions become too much to handle, they may break out in counterproductive ways. Our adaptations may be functional to a point, since continuous complaining and abrasiveness lead to ostracism.

But discontent with one’s situation must find some form of rational expression, by which solutions may be found. If left unexpressed or if expressed irrationally, emotions will inhibit progress. Honest and open communications are necessary for a healthy, growth-oriented working environment, and people must be convinced that expressing themselves openly is much healthier for all concerned. This can only occur when people feel safe in that expression, have trust in the mutual commitment to resolution, and do not fear retaliation for expressing their emotions.

One of the secrets of dealing with difficult people is to play the hand we’re dealt, rather than complaining and moaning about what that hand is. The reason some people we meet remain one dimensional is because that’s as far as we go with them. Few workplace relationships last long if all one person does is complain to or about the other. Listening to nothing but complaints can be a burden.  If you have an associate who takes advantage of your willingness to listen without listening back to you, this emotional burden can be difficult to bear. You can let this go on until it begins to hurt, or you can do something about it. Express yourself. When two people are locked in silent conflict, the best way to break the impasse is to elicit and acknowledge the other’s feelings. This applies especially to cases of mutual misunderstanding.



  • Use Conflict as a Natural Resource. People who work together have different perceptions, and it would be unnatural if they did not disagree from time to time. The conflict generated can be a first step toward improving communication, solving a problem, and even building trust and cooperation. Avoidance or hiding conflict can be much more damaging than facing it and dealing with it.
  • Don’t React.  If you feel emotions building, take time to cool off.  Give yourself time to think and remain focused on identifying the real needs and interests of the other person and yourself.
  • Deal with Feelings.  Identifying or acknowledging another’s feelings tends to reduce the intensity of those feelings and allows the person to focus on the underlying issues. By encouraging  the expression of feelings you increase the probability that your own emotional expressions will be  accepted.
  • Attack the Problem, Not the Person.  Be objective. Focus on the problem and not the person presenting it. Don’t attack the other person and try to see the situation from their point of view. If you make assumptions about their behavior, verify by asking or repeat what you thought you heard.
  • Direct Communication. Speak directly to the other party. Use “I” statements and be clear about points of agreement, about purpose, and about needs. Use body language to show support and attention. Ask questions to clarify and paraphrase what the other person is saying.  Ask problem solving questions.
  • Look Past Positions to the Underlying Interests. A position is someone’s limited view of what solution is necessary to meet a particular need. Until the needs and interests of each are ascertained, it is not possible to generate possible solutions.  Try to identify the other person’s needs, along with your common interests.
  • Focus on the Future. Past allegations are not helpful to a continuing relationship at work.  Don’t sell your ideas; engage in a joint problem solving discussion. Ask what’s important and be sure agreement is reached in dignity and respect.  Any ongoing relationship you have with someone is long term and can be altered to be constructive and improved. What just happened may be temporary.
  • Control Yourself, not Others. Holding onto the resentment of people you have to work with punishes you as much as it does them. You don’t change relationships by trying to control people’s behavior but by changing yourself in relation to them. Listening to and showing respect for the people we work with doesn’t have to be the same as becoming friends.

Consistently use these techniques to deal with difficult situations at work, and to effectively resolve disputes that may inadvertently arise.

Mark Fotohabadi
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