4 Steps to Change the Way You Deal with Challenging People

We all work with people we would label as “difficult”. At best they are mildly irritating, at worst they seem to impede our progress at every turn. Working with people who challenge us is a skill that every successful person has, whether it comes naturally or is something they work at daily. In fact, referring to people as “difficult” only conveys negativity and blame for the problems we have with them, while the term “challenging” conveys the idea that we are being challenged to step up and work outside of our comfort zone. By considering the following 4 steps before dealing with a challenging colleague, you can forever change the way you think of and deal with challenging people. Not only will you improve your daily experience at work, but you may even find that the person becomes less and less of a challenge.

Step 1: Decide if it is in your best interests to find a new way to approach your challenging colleague.

Most challenging people to work with have positive qualities as well, and the majority of people who seem difficult are not doing it intentionally. It helps to remind yourself that it will greatly benefit you to find a way to peacefully work with them, even while it may require some extra effort.

Step 2: Take a closer look at yourself.

Many times, difficult situations cause us to take things personally, and even make things up in our minds about the situation or person. This can go completely unnoticed to us as we sit at our desk, negatively conjuring reasons why this person is out to get us. Beware of thoughts containing the words “never” or “always”. These thoughts are rarely based in fact, but instead come from our emotions. Harvard Business Review suggests reframing the issue, putting it in as positive a light as possible. Don’t let your inner negativity cloud your vision. Giving the other person the benefit of the doubt isn’t making you weak, it is reducing the inner turmoil you have to live with on a daily basis.

Step 3: Take an objective look at them.

This is a lesson in empathy and objectivity. Empathy is a skill that allows you to imagine what the situation looks like from your colleague’s eyes. Remember that not everyone in the world thinks the way that you do.  Could you possibly be making something a priority that is not such a high priority in their world?  Do they have anything going on personally that could be affecting them? This is not designed to make excuses for bad behavior, but rather to see if you can understand why they behaved or reacted the way they did.  From their viewpoint, can you imagine yourself reacting the same way?

Step 4: Actively promote communication and good will.

Whether or not you made progress understanding your challenging person in the previous step, you did make the determination in Step 1 that they have qualities that are valuable to you. In this last step, you must articulate to yourself what these qualities are, and find ways to relay your thoughts in your everyday interactions with them. It is important that you are honest and authentic about what these qualities are, as your attempts to reach out to them will fall flat if you come across as insincere. Routinely, thank them for their contributions to your project/team, show real gratitude in your responses, and speak kindly of them to others.  

These may seem like basic concepts at first glance, but overcoming our own negative thoughts and emotions is not easy. The most effective way to deal with difficult people around us is to change the way we think about them and to learn to communicate with them positively. We must project the types of responses we want to receive from others. In time, you may just see your challenging colleague change their tune.