Dealing With Difficult People

Michele Warg
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Administrative careers put you in close contact with a company’s entire network, so creative avoidance is rarely a long-term option when coping with difficult colleagues or clients. Whether you’re up against a complainer, an opportunist or a bully, use subtle conflict resolution strategies to prevent business interactions from poisoning your workplace mentality.

Evaluate Yourself First

Clashing personalities and avoidable miscommunication are often the root of workplace disagreements, so make sure the difficult person isn’t you. If you take offense easily, consider the intentions behind another person’s questions or criticisms, and ask yourself if your reactions are justified. Approach criticism with a clear head by reminding yourself not to interpret every action as a personal attack on you.

Stay Calm and Proactive

When co-workers or clients are genuinely rude despite your attempts at professionalism, choose proactive conflict resolution over reactive behavior. Whether you agree with it or not, acknowledge the other person’s perspective on the matter, and ask for suggestions on how to handle the situation. Showing willingness to listen and compromise may be enough to diffuse conflicts with difficult employees and clients who feel threatened or unheard.

Stand Up to Workplace Bullies

Workplace bullying can slowly drain your positive outlook and make you hypercritical of your performance and value to company. Bullies seek out the weak and thrive on undermining people who don’t have the authority to stand up for themselves. Prevent a bully from establishing a pattern of abuse by immediately confronting inappropriate behavior and making it clear that you don’t tolerate blatant disrespect.

Don’t confuse conflict resolution with open aggression, since it’s equally important to maintain functional relationships with business acquaintances you see regularly. For example, if someone frequently makes snide comments at your expense and passes them off as harmless jokes, approach the person privately. Explain that you view the comments as derogatory and would prefer to keep your interactions as professional as possible in the future.

Give Teamwork a Try

No one wants to be the target of an intervention, but sometimes, a group effort is necessary to make a difficult person see the light. If conflict resolution involves a client, enlist help from colleagues with the knowledge and authority to offer additional solutions. Devoting more team members to the task also sends the message that the client’s issue is of high priority.

When a negative or unqualified co-worker affects an entire team’s performance, speedy conflict resolution may be the only way to avoid losing clients. Since a group can be intimidating, approach the problem colleague from a supportive perspective. Ask about any workplace distractions or lingering complaints that are potentially influencing the colleague’s performance. At the same time, be prepared to consult the human resources department when a co-worker shows no interest in making adjustments.

Situations with difficult people aren’t always fixable or tolerable, especially when workplace bullying is built into the company culture. Use your instincts to determine which battles to fight and when to use optimistic conflict resolution to change the subject or turn attention away from negative behavior. Make an ongoing effort to highlight the positive and diffuse explosive interactions, and other colleagues may notice your leadership potential, even if the difficult person doesn’t.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at



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