Dealing with difficult people


One of the changes I was looking forward to in moving from a large organization to self employment was no longer having to deal with people I don’t like.  Over the years I’ve encountered several difficult people, not just coworkers, but bosses and clients, and as long as I wanted to keep my job I had to find a way to work with them.  I managed to survive those interactions, but some days I found myself in a rage after a conflict filled encounter, and I dreamed of escaping the situation and never having to face that person again.  My sleepless nights were almost always related to personality conflicts at work.

So when I left my last position to open my own business, with no coworkers, bosses or employees, I thought I’d never have to deal with “jerks” again.  If somebody rubbed me the wrong way, I just wouldn’t do business with them.

It’s been almost a year, and I’ll admit, I’ve come to my senses.  While being self employed does give me more control over the associations I pursue, I still encounter people who drive me crazy, many of whom I can’t avoid.  Either the business connection I have with them is vital, or we’re working together on something that means enough to me that I don’t want to walk away.  I found this again the other day, when I almost dismissed a message from someone getting on my nerves, and then realized that they were asking about a project that means a lot to me.

Here are some tips I’ve used effectively in dealing with annoying people:

1) You can’t change them

The most important thing to remember is that you can’t change people, but you can change the way you react to them.  When someone does something that drives you crazy, instead of reacting in an emotional fashion, take a moment to analyze your feelings, acknowledge them internally, and try to figure out why you’re mad.  Then find a way to respond that will produce a positive result.  Blowing off steam may make you feel better in the short term, but it almost never improves your relationships with others.

2) Consider behavior styles

No matter what terms are used to define them, people generally exhibit behaviors that favor one of four styles: control, persuasion, cooperation or analysis.  Those who take control favor action, while those who like to analyze want to collect all the facts before they make a decision.  When someone annoys you, it may be a matter of conflicting styles: your actions may be equally annoying to them, because you approach the situation in a different fashion.  Spend some time understanding your predominant behavior style (there are plenty of resources on the web) and think about the styles of those you have the most trouble with.  Understanding how you both approach situations will help you find common ground.

3) Consider occupational roles

How you deal with a difficult person will also be influenced by their role in your life.  You might be able to have a conversation with a coworker that you could never have with your supervisor, or the opposite might be true.  Consider the role of this person in your life, the impact that their annoying behavior has on you, and how you might be able to express yourself and explain your point of view without endangering your relationship or job.  Never put up with abuse (it’s illegal), but accept that you don’t have to like your coworkers to remain professional and productive.  Sometimes you have to do it the boss’s way, even if you don’t like him or her.

4) Communicate your boundaries

They can’t fix what they don’t know is broken.  While your coworker sits in their cube, earbuds firmly in place, howling along to their Nine Inch Nails playlist, they may have no idea that you’re trying to concentrate.  Find a quiet time, perhaps out of the office (treat them to coffee) and explain what’s bothering you.  Focus on the behavior, avoid hyperbole (“you always do this” is hardly ever true), and maintain a respectful tone.  You may find that they had no idea their behavior was getting on your nerves.  There’s almost no human interaction that clear, respectful communication can’t improve.

5) Remember to check your filters

We all have filters that affect how we express ourselves, and how we process what others say.  When discussing sensitive or emotionally charged topics be sure to listen with the goal of understanding, instead of just waiting for a chance to state your case, and then try to understand their point of view.  And obey Hanlon’s law: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”  Although “stupidity” might be too strong a term, there are times when people aren’t in possession of all the facts.  That might be your coworker (they just didn’t know better) or you (you might not know why they’re acting the way they do).  Before you get annoyed, take a moment to reflect on what they’re saying (and what you’re hearing) and ask questions to clarify.  Listen more than you talk.

6) Know when to walk away

If you’re at the boiling point, it’s best to disengage.  You may not be able to avoid the person forever (and you need to resolve the conflict to move ahead), but if you’re toe to toe, glaring at each other with fists clenched, it’s time to get a cup of coffee or walk around the block.  One particular coworker that repeatedly got on my nerves was easily distracted and didn’t hold grudges, so if I could disengage until I cooled down I could count on a more receptive encounter the next time we spoke.  They’d forgotten their anger and moved on, and we could work it out.

While being self-employed reduces the need to interact frequently with coworkers, very few live a productive life in isolation.  Finding a way to work with everyone, even those who annoy you, widens your range of opportunities for a rewarding life.

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