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  • Writer's pictureMegan Wood

How to deal with difficult people effectively in the workplace

If you have an employee or team member who seems to be constantly negative, is openly hostile towards co-workers or, even worse, is passive-aggressive, it can be really damaging to team morale. In this situation many of us would like to send the trouble maker packing, but, in most cases that is not a legal, practical or ethical option. There are always going to be people we find “difficult” and unless we want to move to a remote cabin in the middle of nowhere, we need to develop our skills for dealing with them.

Dr Gary Chapman, an experienced counsellor and author of many best-selling books on relationships talks about the idea of “reframing” your interactions with difficult people. This idea of “reframing” really resonated with me so I decided to explore how it might be applied in the workplace.

Why do some people seem so “difficult”?

I came across a small team recently who, on the surface, seemed to get along. Delving deeper, however, it became clear that one team member actively disliked one of their colleagues, refusing to speak to them when no one else was around to witness their behaviour. In addition, this person was unhappy with various aspects of their work on both a micro and macro level and would to organise meetings with her HR department to discuss these on a weekly basis. It can be easy to pigeon-hole someone like this as “difficult”, but, as she didn’t seem to be changing jobs any time soon, her colleagues needed to find a way to work with her. Two things helped in this situation. First, the team members went out of their way to find “common ground” with her. Secondly, they took the time to reframe the complaints and see them for what they were. They realised that her weekly venting sessions with HR were her way of letting off steam and, more importantly, staying in control. By venting her issues, she was able to move past them. When the rest of her team were clued into this fact they no longer took the barbs and complaints personally and, consequently, the overall tension in the team diffused a little. Things weren’t perfect, we can’t get along with everyone, but the team were markedly more content and functional.

What does reframing really mean?

I like to think of reframing in terms of the classic adage to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes”. We all have a lens we see the world through and this extends to how we perceive those around us. Most of the time we don’t realise we are putting our own value systems and expectations onto others but we all do it, it is part of being human. When you are forced to spend large amounts of time with those you would label “not my kind of people”, things get more challenging. This is where reframing is a great tool. That person who is always ten minutes late in the mornings? Maybe they are a single parent with two kids and getting out the door at all in the morning takes every bit of energy she has. The guy you labeled “stand-offish” as he refuses to sit with the rest of the team at lunch? Perhaps he has serious social anxiety and his quiet time over lunch is essential to him staying emotionally regulated throughout the day. The really chatting woman who always talks to you for way too long while you make your cup of tea? What if she lives alone and her interactions at work are the only way she has to feel connected to others. Do you see where this is going? By finding a context for those “difficult” people, by reframing the picture, a new story emerges.

How do you reframe?

The key here is to acknowledge that you do have your own well established world view. And that’s ok. The most important part of reframing is to stop asking “why does this person keep doing these annoying things to me” and instead think to yourself, “I wonder what is going on with them and if they are ok.” Reframing is also about looking at your own “bigger picture” and asking yourself if the complaints of that person are a big deal afterall. Think about all of the things you love about your job, your full personal life, your dog, your gym workout, whatever makes you happy and just let out a big breath, letting the negativity go. No one can force negative feelings on you. We all have the power to reframe the way we see ourselves and others, both at work and beyond.

If you are facing some challenging people in the workplace and are not sure how to resolve them please reach out and take advantage of my professional mediation services. With my help you can find a resolution and get on with the work at hand.

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