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How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

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We have all had experiences with people who have tricky personalities, huge egos, toxic energy or challenging communication styles.  Unless you work in a vacuum, you are going to come across a difficult boss, colleague, vendor or client.    

Some of these situations are serious and require extreme measures.  Years ago, I had a job I enjoyed until I got a new boss who was never satisfied with my efforts.  After months of demoralizing interactions that caused me much stress, the final straw occurred when she told me that I looked “like sh*t.”  I was dressed my best and heading out to a client company to give a big presentation (I was also six months pregnant…)  I looked at her in disbelief and said, “Wow, that was not very constructive feedback, and I’m really not okay with you talking to me like that.”  She made a face and shrugged…

After returning from my presentation, I spoke with the owner of the company (her boss.)  He apologized and acknowledged there were numerous similar complaints about her, but nothing changed.  I couldn’t change the situation, so I changed what I could—I soon left the job to start my own company.

Since then, I’ve been at the other end of the stick as an employer.  One impressively educated therapist seemed to be at the root of every interpersonal conflict that took place in our office.  Staff complained of her entitled behaviors and negativity.  After failed attempts to coach her towards more respectful and positive behaviors, I let her go (something I dreaded, but felt was necessary.)  Her departure was felt immediately;  the bad apple that bred low morale was gone and the environment was light and positive.

Terminating the relationship with the difficult person is not always an option.  Therefore, we must develop the skills to successfully deal with these folks without losing our minds or our hair.  After nearly 20 years of counseling clients through challenging professional relationships, I recommend the following:

  • Look at yourself.  Sometimes when people get under our skin it is because they are reminding us of some negative aspect of ourselves, which we don’t like.  Reflect and consider this possibility.  Separate out your own stuff.
  • Demonstrate empathy. Empathy is the ability to show somebody else you can understand how they feel in a given situation (i.e. “I understand your frustration and am sorry for this situation”.)  Empathy can neutralize many conflicts, nipping them in the bud.  Understand there are reasons this person is the way they are, and that we all have our issues.
  • Control what you can and let go of the rest. Recognize that you can’t control other people, their thoughts, attitudes or actions. Take care of yourself.  Behave in a way that is professional, diplomatic and congruent with your highest self.  As Wayne Dyer said, “How people treat you is their karma, how you react is yours.”
  • Set healthy boundaries.  Don’t have a closer relationship than absolutely necessary with a difficult person.  Keep the relationship professional and avoid getting entangled in any personal drama.  If he or she tries to triangulate you by badmouthing others, simply say, “I’m sorry you are going through this but I would rather not get involved.”
  • Practice assertive communication. Speak in terms of “I” instead of “you” to avoid defensiveness (“I need to shut my door and get some work done” instead of “You are insane!”)  Be clear, authentic and direct.  Say “no” firmly when necessary.
  • Practice detachment.  Imagine you are surrounded by white light and all their negative energy simply bounces of you, rather than penetrating you.  Don’t give them the power to make you feel badly about yourself.  Visualize being unplugged from their “stuff” and avoid getting “hooked” into any conflict.  Use deep breathing and mindfulness techniques to stay in the present.
  • Practice gratitude.  Focus on the good parts.  Zoom out and see the bigger picture.  Be thankful for all the good things in your life and for any blessings this person may bring to you (I am grateful to my former boss for giving me the motivation to start my own company and to my former employer for showing me my strength and capability for dealing with a difficult situation.)
  • Send them good vibes.   Send the person love and blessings.  As Nelson Mandela said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”  If for nothing else but your own sake, forgive and let go.
How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

Joyce Marter, LCPC

Joyce Marter, LCPC is the Founder of Urban Balance and public speaker. You may find her at her personal website here, or you may follow her on Twitter.

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APA Reference
Marter, J. (2013). How to Deal with Difficult People at Work. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Jul 2013
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