5 Ways To Deal with Difficult People at Work

Try a little understanding and empathy when handling challenging employees.

Written by Paul Bramson
Published on Dec. 11, 2023
5 Ways To Deal with Difficult People at Work
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Dealing with difficult people is a common yet challenging aspect of the workplace dynamic. Whether it’s clashing personalities, divergent viewpoints or differing communication styles, navigating these interactions with finesse is crucial for maintaining a productive environment.

5 Tips for Dealing With Difficult Employees

  1. Maintain your composure.
  2. Empathize with the person and try to understand their perspective.
  3. Actively listen to their concerns.
  4. Seek common ground between you and the other person.
  5. Address behavior that is inappropriate or unprofessional.

Despite these encounters, professionalism demands engaging with colleagues effectively despite conflicting viewpoints or challenging behavior. Managing conversations with complex individuals while upholding respect and preserving open dialogue is a crucial skill set in today's workplace landscape. But it can be super challenging.

From maintaining composure in heated confrontations to establishing standards of mutual respect, the tactics below provide a blueprint for handling and navigating situations facing the most challenging people and conversations at work. With a degree of emotional intelligence and a few essential skills in your toolkit, you can handle difficult colleagues with grace and ease to maintain relationships and foster the best possible outcomes for all involved.

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Maintain Composure

When faced with a confrontational person, it’s natural to feel our own defensiveness and anger rising inside, but reacting emotionally will only escalate tensions and lead to a destructive exchange. To maintain level-headed professionalism, even if provoked, it’s essential to control our emotional responses. Preserving a calm demeanor sets the stage for a more constructive exchange.

When faced with heightened emotions, taking a moment to breathe and regain composure is vital. This intentional pause allows you to recenter your nervous system and thoughts so that rationality can prevail and you can best work through conflicts and guide conversations toward more productive outcomes.

Approach every interaction with a steady demeanor, speaking slowly, evenly, and calmly, even if the other person turns infuriated. Your composed presence will help settle them down over time. Getting caught up in another person’s frenzy never ends well. With patience and care, you can better alleviate strained relations and make space to find the most constructive way forward.

Approaching difficult situations with a poised and collected demeanor serves a dual purpose. Not only does it address immediate tensions, but it also fosters an environment conducive to respectful and rational discussion. This composure can quell present conflicts and cultivate an atmosphere promoting professional dialogue centered on seeking common ground.


Practice Empathy and Understand Perspectives

It’s human nature to become defensive when confronted or criticized. When one takes a step back, one might see that beneath a prickly exterior often lie insecurities and fears that fuel more aggressive or abrasive behaviors. 

Showing empathy is integral to navigating interactions with challenging individuals. Truly listening to and understanding their perspectives, motivations and underlying concerns lays the groundwork that lets another person feel heard and respected, leading to more productive and open communication and ultimately, mutual respect.

Empathizing with, or showing empathy for, another person’s worries and frustrations opens doors to finding solutions. Put yourself in their shoes, acknowledge their concerns (even if you disagree) and reaffirm that you want productive outcomes for everyone. 


Actively Listen

Active listening serves as a powerful tool for navigating difficult conversations. By attentively listening to another person’s concerns, asking clarifying questions to ensure you fully understand, and reflecting on what you heard, you demonstrate a genuine effort to comprehend their perspective, even if you might disagree with it entirely.

Engaging in active listening allows you to better understand the underlying sentiments and motivations driving the conversation. Reflecting back on their concerns acknowledges their viewpoint, demonstrating respect and an openness to the conversation. 

Acknowledging their thoughts and emotions, even amid disagreement, lays the foundation for a respectful and productive exchange. It signifies a willingness to consider differing opinions and collaboratively explore potential solutions, paving the way for a more amicable and constructive dialogue.


Seek Common Ground 

One way to lay the groundwork for a productive dialogue is to identify and confirm the overall outcomes to ensure you are all on the same page. Once everyone agrees on the goal or intended outcome, staying focused on the dialogue and staying on point to the agreed-upon outcome is easier.

Recognizing areas of agreement provides a foundation for collaboration, encouraging a focus on solutions and grounding to navigate away from differences adeptly. Explore shared progress you can productively undertake and interactions that generate mutual understanding. Brainstorm how aligning efforts and using individual strengths could increase standard success measures for you both.

While disagreements may persist, pursuing common ground allows for exploring solutions that align with shared objectives. It encourages a proactive approach to finding a middle ground and fosters an environment conducive to constructive discussions and collaborative problem-solving.

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Establish Boundaries

While seeking to understand differing perspectives is invaluable, you must firmly address behaviors that cross lines of respect and professionalism. Maintaining a respectful and productive discourse necessitates the establishment of clear boundaries and rules of conduct when dealing with challenging individuals. When aiming for open dialogue, assertively set limits to preserve professionalism and mutual respect.

Addressing disrespectful behavior assertively yet diplomatically signals a commitment to upholding a respectful environment. Communicating boundaries effectively reinforces the expectation for civil interactions without compromising professional decorum. 

Set the tone by speaking and behaving respectfully, not just insisting others do, and demonstrate through your disposition what civil engagement looks like even if they fall short. Progress starts with one side rising above triviality.

Firmly but politely delineating acceptable behavior creates a framework that ensures conversations remain focused, constructive and free from disrespectful conduct. Upholding these boundaries establishes a conducive environment for meaningful exchanges while safeguarding professional relationships.

The most challenging individuals often stand to benefit the most from understanding and encouragement. Lead by example and promote cooperation and productivity over confrontation. 

Dealing with difficult people can determine your entire career trajectory. Don’t believe me? Ask experienced leaders or high-performing professionals what challenges, shortcomings or downfalls they’ve experienced in their careers; trust me, this will be at the top of the list. That’s why learning how to manage these situations is integral to your professional success. 

There’s no better time than now to figure it out and be able to apply and embrace these tactics. Difficult people are not going away.

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