No matter what kind of work you do, it’s likely that you occasionally have to deal with difficult people. It would be great if we could all work with and for respectful, straightforward, generous people all the time, but sadly, that’s a vision unlikely to come true any time soon.
People are messy and complex, sometimes difficult and unpredictable. For the most part, I think this is a good thing. The human experience is incredibly diverse—which is why the world is such an interesting place. However, in the moment when our differences create conflict, disrespect, or frustration, we may find ourselves wishing for a world in which everyone behaved just like us.
Reframing Our Reactions to Challenging Colleagues and Customers
For better or worse, it’s impossible to control the behavior of another person. What we can control is ourselves—our reactions and behaviors in response to what we perceive as a “difficult” person.
More often than not, the perception that another person is challenging, complex, or selfish is rooted in our own images of ourselves. The curt email from a supervisor is a passive-aggressive dig at my communication style. The leader who asks a lot of pointed questions presents a challenge to my own understanding of a project. The selfish person who puts their own needs at the top of their priority list is simply not working as hard as I am. How dare they?
If you find yourself frustrated with a “difficult” colleague, I invite you to take a moment to reflect on why you feel that they are difficult. What behaviors exactly do you find so challenging? Be as objective and empirical as possible. Then, stop and think about why you find that so frustrating.
Take a Look Inward
Are you upset because of their behavior (i.e., I believe it’s incredibly rude to write short, terse emails)? Or because their behavior reflects one of your own insecurities (i.e., I put a lot of thought into that proposal, and the terse response makes me feel unappreciated)? Do you really believe that leaders shouldn’t ask questions about upcoming projects? Or are you just afraid that you’ll look like you don’t have all the answers in front of your team?
The key here is to shift your perception away from the other person and toward yourself. Unless they are truly malicious (more on that below), chances are they are not acting a certain way to upset you. They are not writing a short email at you—they are busily moving through their own lives. In fact, the chances are that they’re not thinking of you at that moment. People are inherently selfish—we are all the protagonist in our own stories. You can use that selfishness to your advantage—make it about you, how you feel, what you value, and how you react to the situation, instead of about the other person and their behavior.
Focus On Your Reaction
Now, of course, there is a big difference between the frustration that arises with different communication styles and the stress of dealing with a malicious, mean, manipulative, or abusive person. Some people are awful—and a lot of them have jobs, or spend time as patrons at businesses. You will run into them. When I worked in the service industry, I used to joke that 70% of people are awesome, 25% are tolerable, and 5% are truly awful. Serve 100 people in a shift, and fewer than 5 jerks was a good day. Obviously, this is an oversimplification, and I don’t mean to diminish how stressful it can be to have to deal with 5 jerks at work every single day. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s easy to let the awful ones take up all of your mental energy, diminishing the great encounters with the 95 mostly-lovely people you worked with that day.
In many cases, you can also deal with these bad actors by focusing on your own reaction—what you can control—to their behavior.
I picked up a few tactics in the service industry for dealing with difficult people: kill them with kindness, or stay as neutral as possible. There is something incredibly satisfying about taking the high road when another person seems determined to pull you down to their level. They’re being rude? Make a point of saying please and thank you (bonus points for a syrupy sweet tone and smile). Colleague constantly questioning your judgment? Calmly and rationally lay out your thinking. Someone ranting about the “awful manager who hates them”? Keep a neutral expression, shrug your shoulders, and give them a thoroughly unsatisfying “Huh. Sorry you feel that way—I’ve never had that problem.”
Later, when you’re far away from the situation, go ahead and rant with your partner or friends. The key is to keep your own feelings hidden from the difficult person, and far away from the workplace. Awful people are typically after a reaction of some sort—so don’t give them the satisfaction.
Recognize and Reject Abuse
I’d like to add the important caveat here that some behavior is downright abusive, and the line between a difficult person and an abusive one isn’t always crystal clear. I served plenty of tables that were rude, difficult, or just generally unpleasant. Challenging, but part of the job. On a handful of occasions, however, rudeness quickly became an obscenity-laden screaming, name-calling, or really scary harassment.
Fortunately, I worked at establishments that backed me up and kicked them out, and took action to ensure my safety. It was also an environment where the lines between routine difficulties and abuse were (mostly) clear, so there wasn’t much ambiguity around whether the behavior was acceptable or not. I’m grateful for that, and it’s no doubt related to the relative privilege I enjoy as a straight, cis, white woman. I know that plenty of folks out there in the world of work don’t have the same level of support from their employers. And if you’ve read the news or been on Twitter in the past year, then you’ve likely heard a number of stories about truly awful, abusive behavior in the workplace (and the world in general).
The act of looking inward can help us stay true to our values and draw firm lines around what is not acceptable.Tweet
I also believe that, if it’s safe for us to do so, we should draw lines and boundaries on unacceptable behavior that isn’t directed at ourselves. If you feel awful about the way a co-worker was treated in a meeting, then do what you can to call out bad behavior. If the culture of your organization excludes people, or creates an unsafe environment for anyone, speak up as much as you’re able.
It’s Okay to Be Selfish
Whether you’re dealing with a colleague or customer who’s different work style makes their behavior feel frustrating or difficult, dealing with a person who is rude or unpleasant, or struggling to contextualize abusive behavior, the act of looking inward—of focusing on what you can control—can help to bring necessary perspective to the situation. It can also help us to develop self awareness around how our own behavior affects those around us, and to draw firm and clear boundaries around what we find unacceptable. Be selfish—make it all about you—you’re the person who matters most in your story.