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How to Deal With Difficult Work Relationships

Do you work with a know-it-all, a workplace bully, a complainer, a drama queen (or king)?

Whether it’s a customer or colleague I’m sure you’ve encounter a difficult professional relationship.

We’ve all been dealt with that “sand paper person,” who rubs us the wrong way and is painful to be around.

So how do we deal with these grating relationships?

Below are five suggestions to deal with difficult relationships, so you can maintain your performance, well-being, and overall sanity at work.

1. Open your mind and practice empathy

First off, remember that people aren’t necessarily difficult, they’re just different. We live in a diverse world with many different perspective and beliefs. Having an open-mind to these differences can help us realize that different isn’t wrong or bad, it’s just different.

Secondly, you never know what people are going though in life. They may be going through a very troubling and stressful experience that’s affecting their attitude, performance, and conduct.

So before making a judgment that someone else is a difficult person, practice empathy and viewing the world through their eyes. Seek to understand others and you’ll likely develop a more hospitable relationship.

2. Focus on what they do right

It’s easy to only focus on what people do wrong or what bothers us. To help you create a more productive relationship with that disagreeable other, start to focus on what they do well.

It’s likely that they have important strengths and assets they bring to the table, even if it’s hard to notice these qualities.

By pointing out and praising the behavior and interactions you appreciate from this person, you might notice this starts to shape their behavior for the better.

When you identify and give your attention to what they do well, you can start to have a positive influence on the dynamics of the relationship.

3. You can only control of YOU

It’s easy to get into a pattern of blaming others or situations for “making” us felling a certain way. Unfortunately, if you don’t like the way someone is acting, trying to change them isn’t going to work.

When it comes down to it we are responsible for our thoughts, feelings and actions, and that’s ultimately all we really have control over.

Take back your personal power. No matter how frustrated or annoyed you feel, realize that other people don’t have control over your emotions and behavior.

Focus on what you can do to improve the situation and how you want to respond. Make sure you’re not making it worse through your impulsive reactions.

4. Learn to set boundaries

Everyone has different personal boundaries. Some people wear their heart on their sleeve and are happy to dish out their personal information with a side of impassioned affection, while others are more of the introverted, quiet type.

When it comes to work relationships, it’s important to know your own boundaries as well as the boundaries or your colleagues. Realize that other people rarely intend to cross boundaries. They might just have more informal or loose boundaries than you.

If this is the case, be clear and assertive when setting boundaries. State clearly and calmly what you’re boundaries, preferences, and needs are in the moment.

A good rule of thumb is to play it safe and have more formal boundaries until you can get to know someone and learn what they find appropriate or offensive, but clearly people won’t always be cognizant of this.

5. Mutual respect is everything

We won’t always agree with others, and frankly we may not even like them, but we can still maintain a mutually respectful relationship despite this.

Respect is a necessary pillar of any healthy relationship and is the synthesis of many of the ideas previously discussed.

How you know whether a relationship is mutually respectful?

Most likely, you feel like your ideas and opinions are accepted and that people appreciate your positive qualities. You also probably feel respected with people are considerate of your boundaries and well-being.

If you find that you have a disgruntled relationship with someone, try to be empathetic and understand them. Be accountability for your feelings and actions and set clear boundaries.

If you do so, it’s more likely that the relationship will be based on mutual respect.

Photo credit: Nguyen Hung Vu

How to Deal With Difficult Work Relationships

Joe Wilner

Joe Wilner is a life coach, licensed clinical psychotherapist (LCP), and drummer from the band Yes You Are. He is also creator of You Have a Calling, a blog and online community helping people discover and pursue their life’s work and mission. Through deep and personalized coaching, he helps ambitious, creative, and spiritually minded individuals make a greater impact, grow as leaders, and design a soulful life they are inspired by.

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APA Reference
Wilner, J. (2017). How to Deal With Difficult Work Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 25 Jan 2017
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