There ARE no Difficult Co-Workers

“She’s just so DIFFICULT!”  The participant in my session was beside herself when describing a colleague.

While speaking on managing conflict, I often hear stories of how “difficult” someone’s co-worker is. I often hear things such as, “he does not get it,” “why can’t she just stop being that way?”, “they just don’t understand.”  Reacting to someone else’s difficult behavior is not hard, in fact, it’s easy. It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling superior to the other person, to display unhelpful behavior in kind, easy perhaps to belittle them, or put them down. Responding to someone’s difficult behavior respectfully — now that is a challenge. So, when I encounter such situations on the road, it is not my place to make a judgment about who is “right” or “wrong” in a particular conflict.  It is my job to encourage people to stretch their thinking a bit.  I always endeavor to give my audience a different paradigm from which to view the conflict.

John-Robert Curtin, a Senior Fellow at the 4Civility Institute, puts it this way:

“It’s easy to say, but hard to remember when our emotions are blazing with anger, frustration, helplessness, or confusion over the actions of another, who we want to label as stupid, insecure, hostile, inferior, miserable, or other negative coloration. What can happen is that we begin to see that person in that color only and trap them in stereotype with a label that becomes self-fulfilling. Holding onto the resentment of people you have to work with punishes you as much as it does them. You won’t change relationships by trying to control other people’s behavior, but you can by changing yourself in relation to them. You can place your energy in blaming and deriding someone or you can use it to experiment how to find more productive means of interaction.”

I am a firm believer that there are no difficult people – only difficult behaviors. As I have discussed in previous articles, it is critical to treat all people with respect whether or not you like what they think, say or do. If you can’t separate a person from their behavior, you cripple your ability to treat them with respect.  Making that separation equips you to address the behavior without attacking the person.

It’s just unrealistic to believe you will never face someone behaving badly at the office. ALL of us behave badly now and then. (Some more often than others, unfortunately…) The question is, are you letting someone who consistently behaves badly affect your productivity or ruin your day?  If so, you don’t have to.

My first recommendation is ALWAYS going to be to address the person directly, assertively and respectfully.

Make sure you are in emotional control. That doesn’t mean you should squash your feelings; it simply means expressing your feelings in a clear and non-threatening manner. Utilize “I” statements and begin by expressing points of agreement, the purpose of the conversation and a sincere desire for resolution. Be aware of your body language – make sure it is supportive and attentive. Communicate the facts of the situation as you perceive them. State the observable behavior (what you saw or heard), not assumptions about intentions or exaggerations.

Express how the difficult behavior affects you. Often people don’t consider how others are affected by their behavior, so addressing this directly can help people see some of the consequences of their behavior. Ask for insights into what their thought process is and what is causing them to behave in this manner. Clarify your understanding at every opportunity, so you are clear in what they are trying to communicate to you.

When necessary, acknowledge your contribution to the situation. (Remember, there are three sides to every story: yours, theirs and the truth.) This can be a tremendous growth opportunity for both of you. Allow the other person to provide insights into how your behavior affect them, whether positive or negative while you are sharing your perceptions. Accepting a share of a difficult situation eliminates blame and creates common ground. Make recommendations for change and invite the other person to collaborate in improving the situation.

But what if the open and direct approach is met with resistance, or does not bring about any change? What then?

In order to approach a situation from higher ground, and treat people with respect regardless of any bad behavior, one must first understand a base, underlying motivation. People who regularly exhibit difficult behaviors do so because it gets them what they want.  Every human being on Earth has learned, by age two that if we behave badly, it gets us attention.  We all threw temper tantrums.  Most people grow out of them.  A rare few grow into them.  Then as adults, they realize that if they behave badly, not only does it get them attention but (and here’s an added benefit…) it makes someone else look or feel bad at the same time.  They behave the way they do because it gets them what they want.

None of us have the power to change another person. You can scream, holler, and hold your breath until you turn blue while standing on your head, but you will not change them. The only person any of us has any control over is ourselves. We can, however, change someone else’s behavior.  You can change a difficult behavior by changing the results someone receives for the behavior. You react or respond in a particular manner to behavior that you find difficult to handle.  If you can figure out what benefit they perceive from the way you react to their behavior, then you have the power to change the result, by changing how you respond to the behavior.

Here are five steps that you can use to deal with difficult behavior and prevent it from disrupting your day.

  • Separate the person from their behavior so that you can treat them with respect.  Address a behavior without attacking a person.
  • Identify the specific behavior you find difficult to handle. (Sometimes there may be more than one behavior, but process each individually, one at a time.) Be specific. Don’t generalize with personality characteristics, such as, “He’s so negative,” or “She’s so ‘high & mighty.’” Discipline yourself to identify specific behaviors.
  • Determine the behavior you wish the person would exhibit instead of the behavior you find difficult to handle.  Start broadly if you must.  (Trust me, in my travels, I have heard just about everything.  “I wish this person would: eat worms and die, fall off a cliff, spontaneously combust, quit, take early retirement, just go away, just shut up…”)  Work through the extremes, if you must, to release any venom that might have built up inside of you. Then narrow it down to the specific behavior you wish this person would adopt instead of that which you find annoying.
  • Understand conditioned behavior. Their behavior is conditioned. At some level, people exhibit difficult behavior because it gets them what they want. Your reaction to their behavior is also conditioned. You have a conditioned reaction to their bad behavior.
  • Change their behavior by changing the results they receive for their behavior. Change your conditioned reaction to response. Create a plan to guide the person toward the preferred behavior and habits by adjusting the results they receive for the current behavior.

This is not a “quick fix” to someone else’s bad behavior. It is, rather a system that, when practiced consistently, will begin to show results in limiting the behavior you find difficult, thus bringing you a more productive and stress-free working environment.

References (1)

Abstract: Workplace Incivility, Harassment and Bullying in Healthcare Organizations: Practical Solutions to Create a Healthy Healthcare Environment: Curtin and Belak: 2015

About the Author, Lauren Schieffer

As the daughter of a career Air Force officer, The Colonel’s Daughter, Lauren Schieffer, CSP gained a profound independence and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The lessons she learned from “The Colonel” have helped her make smart decisions and overcome adversity with humility and a sense of humor.  Lauren helps global audiences communicate respectfully and avoid unnecessary conflict. She has spoken in seven countries to associations, organizations, federal, state and local governments, and Fortune 500 companies.