They Annoy, Antagonize and Stress Us. How Can We Work With Them as Teammates?

Dealing with difficult people can be, well, difficult. We all face them at work and in daily life. Here are some strategies for coping with them.

We all have them in our lives: people who annoy us, antagonize us, push our buttons. In daily life we can often avoid them. When they are colleagues at work, we don’t have that option. So, how can we learn to get along with or at least tolerate people who get under our skin?

The first step with someone who is difficult is to accept that we need to deal with them; wishing they would change their ways, leave us alone, quit or get fired won’t solve anything. After that, there are various strategies we can use. Here is some advice based on my research and some personal experiences.

Make allowances. Sometimes a person who is difficult is dealing with stresses outside work that you can’t see — maybe a problem at home, worry about a medical condition, financial difficulty, a legal matter. Try not to be judgmental and write the person off as a jerk. Make an effort to look below the surface for what might be driving the objectionable behavior.

Take a look at yourself. Often, unpleasantness between two people works in both directions. Take a step back and consider whether something you’re doing might be triggering the other person’s behavior. Also consider whether you are being overly sensitive — reacting strongly to small annoyances that you would be better off ignoring.

Hold the anger. When a person does something to make us angry, the first instinct is to be angry right back. Once at a previous job, a colleague wrote a memo harshly criticizing me and shared it with our entire work team. I wrote a harsh memo in return and also copied the team. All that did was fracture the relationship and make me look petty. What I should have done was have a sit-down with the person behind a closed door and try to come to an understanding.

Make it personal. Instead of pushing the difficult person away, try opening up to them and see if they respond in kind. I once had a client no one on my team could stand. In dealings over the phone she was snobbish, overly critical, and incapable of making decisions. When asked to host her for a visit to our offices, I dreaded the day. But over lunch I shared information about myself and my family; soon she was talking about her outside-of-work interests and her career as a college water polo player. She was much more pleasant to deal with after that.

Focus on the issue, not the person. Once while I was working at an ad agency years ago, the creative director barged into my office and started berating me for delaying a project we’d been working on. I could have responded by pointing out that I had not delayed the project (and in fact I wasn’t at fault). Instead I ignored the accusation, invited her to have a chair and said, “OK, what do you need from me?” Argument avoided. We worked it out and the job got done. She probably still thought I caused the delay, but in the end, so what?

Put it on the table. Sometimes it’s necessary to address the situation directly. When that time comes, do it tactfully. Don’t hurl accusations. Instead, let the person know how their behavior affects you. Experts typically recommend using “I” language instead of “you” language. For example, instead of saying, “You are always criticizing me in front of other people,” say, “I find it hurtful when you criticize me in front of other people. 

Don’t let them get you down. Never let a difficult person ruin your work life. Try to focus on the contributions they make to your workplace. Sometimes, despite their annoying habits, difficult people are excellent workers. Keep a positive and cheerful attitude. If you know the person is going to be around, learn to accept that. Think of it as a “gravity issue.” Gravity is a relentless and restrictive force. It’s always there. You just live with it. So it can be with that person who, every now and then, drives you half crazy.   


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