When you are getting ready for work in the morning, is there a work colleague who comes into your mind who you dread seeing, and would rather avoid? If there is, then the chances are that you have a difficult person to deal with at work. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to be a problem that only you are facing. Difficult people at work can cause a ripple effect that has negative consequences throughout the workplace.
Everyone is difficult some of the time of course, so what does it take to be seen as a ‘difficult person’? There are people who complain all the time and are impossible to please. Then there are others who seem to want to turn everything into a competition, or worse, a battle. I have worked with people who treat their staff pool as a free audience for them to play out their own personal soap opera—they demand attention and tend to suck all the energy out of a team. Perhaps you’ve met the perfectionist? Someone who cannot accept anything that is less than perfect and projects their exacting and unrealistic standards on everyone around them. Quieter but just as deadly is the person who quietly goes behind everyone’s backs and gossips and manipulates to get their own way.
Toxic behaviour of any kind takes up time, energy and resources to deal with—all of which could be applied to the actual work to be done. Such behaviour can impact productivity and lower inspiration and morale among any team. It causes stress, absenteeism, and a higher rate of staff turnover.
However, it does not have to be all bad. Difficult work colleagues can help to focus our attention and encourage us to check our own habits at work. Let’s look at some practical, accessible steps that anyone can take to help them to deal with a difficult person at work without risking any of these negative outcomes.
Maybe as you read this you are thinking that you are always paying attention, and this is too obvious to mention? Perhaps you have not heard about the researchthat was done at Harvard University in 2010. It showed that for almost 50% of our waking hours, we are thinking about something different to what we are doing. This means that for almost half our life we are not fully present to ourselves and what we are doing.
Let’s take a moment to consider what that means. If our minds are elsewhere when we are interacting with another person then we are going to miss all kinds of signs as to what is actually going on. Our memoryof the interaction will be flawed and incomplete. We are going to be seeing people and events as we think they are, rather than how they actually are.
This is particularly important when dealing with a person we experience as difficult. We are going to need to able to discern clearly the other person’s behaviour, as well as our own responses to it. It won’t help to get caught out by defensive reactionswhich could add to the problem. Things will only get worse if we exaggerate the difficult behaviour of the other person. Developing equanimity, on the other hand will give us the grounding we need to understand and work with the challenges they present for us.
What we can do
One of the best ways to learn to be present is to make mindfulnesspractice part of your everyday life. Try to spend at least 10 minutes every morning sitting on a cushion, or hard-backed chair connecting with your breath. Simply rest your attention on the rhythm of your breathing. When your attention wanders away, notice it has wandered and bring it back. Keep doing this over and over again. Slowly, steadily you are training your mind to be present.
During the day we can use STOP moments—very short moments of mindfulness meditation.
This is how they work:
- Pause with whatever you are doing
- Connect with your body, feel its strength, let it ground you
- Take a few deep, slow breaths—release any tension you are feeling
- Let your thoughts come and go without chasing after them
- Enjoy the few moments of calm and spaciousness.
- Take that feeling with you as you pick up your activities.
I don’t think I have ever met someone who owned up to being a poor listener. Each of us believes that when people talk to us we hear what they are saying. Sadly, most of the time we only just scratch the surface. We are used to putting our case, telling our story and we want others to listen to us. If we put ourselves in the centre, then it is hard to embrace the whole circle. Much of our listeningcomes from a place of believing we have the correct response, or the right solution and we can’t wait to share it with the person we are talking with. That comes across for the person talking to us, who senses that we are putting our own reactions ahead of their needs.
Susan Gillis Chapman has written a book, The Five Keys to Mindful Communication in which she uses the three colours of traffic lightsto help understand the different levels of communication. When we have someone at work who we are having problems with, the chances are that our communication is going to be the red light, where defensive reactions are predominant. At these times, how we listen is of over-riding importance. Our difficult person is expecting to not be heard, is almost provoking misunderstanding. We cannot afford to shut down and close ourselves off from the signals they are sending. If we can demonstrate that we are trying our best really be present and to listen without the inner commentary of our own opinions, then we have a chance to move to yellow light communication, where things can become more fluid. Of course, our goal is the open communication of the green traffic light.
What we can do
- Try to avoid conversations with your difficult person when you are tired, hungry or stressed.
- When you know you are going into an interaction with them, try to take a STOP moment beforehand.
- Listen with your heart as well as your head.
- Ask yourself what is really going on for the other person.
- Look for any emotional clues.
- Watch out for repeated words or phrases—the chances are these are the issues that are on the other person’s mind the most.
- Consider your attempts to listen with an open mind and heart as your contribution to healing the situation.
Give up judging others
Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading figures in the mindfulness movement, described mindfulness as being, an intentional, non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Why was it necessary to highlight this quality of non-judgment? If you think about it, we judge just about anything. In fact, we divide the world up into things we like and want, things we don’t like and don’t want and things we don’t really care about. We spend a great deal of effort going after the things we want, because we think they will make us happy and avoiding the things we don’t want, because we know they will make us unhappy. The thing is that none of it works. Lasting happiness is much harder to achieve than we thought and it’s hard to avoid challenging things happening to us.
Our like, don’t like and don’t care attitudes are just as easily applied to people we know, as it is to the things that happen to us. We hold our friends close and avoid people we do not like and in between is a huge mass of people we don’t ever really pay attention to. If we have a difficult person at work, they are likely to fall into the category of ‘don’t like and don’t want.’ Obviously, this is a weak position to try to find a solution from.
What we can do
We already mentioned the importance of equanimity as a basis for working with difficult people. It enables us to be present to the person and the situation but to not be drawn into it, to not be affected by it.
- Without equanimity we are defenceless in the emotional territory of the difficult person.
- With equanimity our limbic systemis under control and our neocortexis in charge.
- We can see things as they are, rather than from the point of view of our own self-focus.
- It is not necessary to draw courage from judgments which enforce our own opinions and prejudices.
- Equanimity allows us to be open to what happens, rather than pre-judging any outcomes.
It is easy to think that we don’t have time for kindnessin the workplace but this is a misperception. Being kind does not take more time, it just requires us to be present to ourselves, our work colleagues and the situations we find ourselves in.
Jonathan Haidthas researched something he calls elevation, or a heightened sense of wellbeing. This is the effect of people either experiencing kindness themselves, or witnessing it happening between other people and feeling the benefit personally. When this kind of interaction happens in a work environment it has the effect of building trust, commitment and loyalty. How we try to deal with a difficult person at work can contribute to the overall wellbeing of a workplace.
We’ve seen that it is all too easy to want to avoid difficult people at work, and to not have to deal with them—but let’s take a moment to try and see this from their point of view? Few people set out to be disliked—if their behaviour is provoking dislike, somewhere that is probably causing them distress.
What we can do
- Ask yourself what you know about your difficult work colleague
—are they under stress, is there something going on at home?
- Look for any small thing that you like about the person
—maybe you have the same taste in music, or they like the same movies that you do?
- Try to separate the person from their actions
—all of us do stuff which is not always nice, but it does not mean we are all bad people.
- Whenever you can, try to give your difficult person the benefit of the doubt.
- Observe how they are with other people
—are there other people they get on well with?
—I once had to work closely with someone who said I reminded him of his mother (with whom he had a problematic relationship). Although I found working with him very intense, I noticed that many other people sought him out for collaboration. The problem was something sparked very directly between the two of us.
Don’t forget yourself
Having a difficult relationship at work can be very disheartening. We can feel guilty, inadequate, somehow reduced by being embroiled in a difficult communication. It’s important to remember that we are one part of the puzzle and that the problem has many elements. At the same time, it helps to recognize that although we might not have started the problem it is inevitable that somewhere along the line, we could play a role in perpetuating it. We need to take time to look into our own behaviour and check our own emotional habits and vulnerabilities.
My main meditation teacher always used to say that if you want to remove a difficult person from the world, you can begin by looking into where you need to disarm your own destructive tendencies.
What we can do
- Show yourself some kindnessand understanding when you are under pressure
- Take steps to manage your stress and enhance your wellbeing at work
- Try not to take things personally
- Make mindfulness meditation part of your daily routine to help refine your discernment, develop equanimity and keep things in proportion.
If you found this post helpful and would like to go further, try this online course
9 WAYS TO COPE BETTER WITH YOUR WORK FRUSTRATION
You can sign up here https://www.awarenessinaction.org/cope-better-with-work-frustration/