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How to Deal with a Difficult Co-Worker

blog for interior designers business of interior design career advice career growth creating positive culture emerging professionals employee management managing interior designers personal development Jun 02, 2023
Actionable strategies for dealing with difficult coworkers for young professionals

It is your first interior design job out of college. You are excited and anxious all at the same time. You want to do a good job and are eager to please. But unfortunately, there is a co-worker at the office who is negative and treats you like a child. Her behavior may be impacting your job satisfaction. It affects your enthusiasm for your job, so how do you best deal with a difficult co-worker. This article will discuss key elements of difficult relationships, identifying a difficult person, steps to help you manage the relationship better, and when to elevate the situation to a manager.


3 Key Elements of a Difficult Relationship

Unfortunately, in nearly every work situation, you will come across someone who is difficult. This usually stems from poor communication, lack of empathy, and criticism. So let's look at each problem that may arise between two co-workers.

  •  Poor communication is by far the most common problem within any relationship. With a co-worker, it can be even worse. Figuring out why there is a communication problem and how to better communicate is key to working better difficult people. Communication is a two-way street, as both parties have to participate for it to work.
  •  Having empathy is the ability to understand and share feelings with another person. Now, this doesn't mean you should complain constantly. To practice empathy is working to understand the other person's feelings and to relate to them. One thing I have learned is to listen and acknowledge the person's feelings; even if you don't agree, you must try to understand the feeling. Having empathy for someone can help defuse difficult situations, but it requires you to not react. We will talk about this further in a moment.
  •  Negative criticism puts someone on the defense, but it also has a long-term effect on a person's mental health. It not only wounds a person's pride but also hurts their sense of importance and creates resentment toward the person criticizing.

It is important to note that you may be just as responsible for working with a  difficult person. So, by all means, do not just conclude that it is their problem, not yours. Rather, it is important to take a deep dive into where the problems lie and take steps to overcome them.


8 Signs You Are Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker

Let's start with the signs that you are working with a difficult co-worker. Pay close attention to how many of these items resonate with your situation, as this will help you better understand your feelings regarding the problem.

  •  Insists on having their own way and discounts your ideas
  •  Belittles or insults you, whether directly or indirectly
  •  Leaves you out of important conversations, meetings, or emails about your projects
  •  Inconsistent behavior, including difficulty regulating their own emotions or acting differently in private versus around others
  •  Exhibit toxic traits such as gossiping, negative talk, or unprofessional behavior.
  •  Second guesses everything you and/or your bosses do
  •  Extreme jealousy of you or others
  •  Other team members avoid them.

Again, we don't have a choice to deal with difficult people to get our job done. However, there are steps you can take to improve the situation.

Before we get started with solutions, let's talk about how you play into the situation. It is critical to be honest about your behavior and how that behavior might affect the situation. For example, if every time the co-worker walks into the room, you immediately tense up and start preparing for a battle, chances are you will not react well to them.

Think through situations and how you think you could have responded better. Maybe you are an over-explainer; I mean this with love. Your co-worker seems to get irritated and interrupts you when you are explaining an idea. Recognizing that person may only need the briefest explanation will help you adapt your approach to speaking with the co-worker. Some people need to know the facts, and that is it. Whereas others want more explanation. You need to recognize the needs of your co-worker and adapt accordingly. 


10 Steps to Dealing with Difficult Co-Workers

After self-reflection and identifying how to do a better job, it is time to find actionable ways to improve the relationship with that difficult co-worker.

  1.  Start by walking a mile in their shoes. Take a few minutes to understand why they might be difficult. Maybe your co-worker was passed over for a promotion. Or maybe she doesn't feel good about herself. Maybe something in her personal life is creating a strain on her work self. It is important to look at the situation by trying to understand the person and why they might be difficult. It is okay to politely ask your co-worker if they are doing okay. Try something like, "I noticed you're not yourself lately, is everything okay? Is there anything I can help with?" If they share, then you have the opportunity to practice empathy.
  2.  Keep your emotions in check and stay calm. This can be difficult, especially when you feel criticized and unworthy. We cover this further in this article.
  3.  Treat your co-worker with kindness and respect. Have you ever dealt with a grumpy cashier? It can really put you in a bad mood. My husband is good with these types of grumps because he makes it his mission to make them laugh, which he is good at doing. On the other hand, I take a play out of my dad's handbook and kill them with kindness. Some people struggle with mindset; no matter how you try to relate or develop the relationship, they will continue to struggle. Instead of being grumpy back, treat the person with kindness and respect. What happens when we treat everyone with kindness and respect? It positively helps our own mindset.
  4.  Practice empathy. Empathy is the practice of understanding another person's feelings. According to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, there are three kinds of empathy: Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate. Cognitive is knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. This is the walk a mile in someone else's shoes, covered above. That is only one part of empathy. The next is the emotional aspect of empathy, where you actually feel what the person is going through. This might be a physical reaction as well. For example, you feel the anxiety a friend feels when they lose their job. Finally, compassion pulls it all together, and this is where we act to help the person. Empathy for some is very hard, and it takes practice to truly understand someone's feelings and to help them through the situation.
  5.  Develop a relationship. Sometimes it is just a matter of getting to know someone and developing a relationship. If you struggle to connect with a co-worker, ask them for coffee. Try to get to know them on a different playing field. You may learn that their behavior has nothing to do with you and that this person is enjoyable outside of work. Having a relationship with the person beyond work will help you be more understanding when tough situations arise during work.
  6.  One of the best ways to develop a relationship is to exercise curiosity. Here is a little-known secret – people love to talk about themselves. You allow them to talk about themselves by being curious and asking questions.
  7.  Focus on what you can control. You cannot control how someone reacts to a situation, nor should you take on those emotions the person is exerting. It is important to note that you can't control people, nor can you change them. Understanding which aspects of a relationship you can control and which you cannot help you compartmentalize the emotions.
  8.  Stand up for yourself by establishing boundaries. Unfortunately, some grumpy, difficult people are out there, and nothing you can do will change their mindset. With that said, you do not deserve to be treated badly. You have control over your own boundaries. If you want someone to stop treating you poorly, be direct, not rude, and let them know their behavior does not work for you. Don't be emotional or yell; stick to the facts. "I don't like when you talk over me and belittle my ideas. You are not being kind, and I will not engage with you further."
  9.  Ask for advice from your manager or a mentor. Don't go tell on this person. It is not the playground, and you are an adult. Rather, come to your manager with solutions. "I am having problems working with Jane and would like to improve the relationship. I was thinking of asking her for coffee. Would you have any other advice for me?" Your manager or a mentor may have advice that can help you further.
  10.  If nothing seems to work and you have exhausted every avenue we discussed, it is time to create a buffer. A buffer can be a person in between you two. It can be copying someone else on email communications. It can be asking your manager to join the conversation or meeting. You may have to ask to work on a different team if you can't find common ground.


How to Manage Your Own Emotions

I'm not fond of it when people tell me business isn't personal. As much as business is separate, it is hard not to take it personally, especially when you feel criticized or bullied. So yes, it would be best to come at it without emotion.

However, that can be hard when it is your career and you spend 8 to 10 hours a day at the business. With that said, the less emotional you act in the business setting, the better your career will grow.

For some of us, we hold our emotions on our sleeves, so how do we practice managing our emotions.

  •  Keep neutral body language – don't cross your arms. Keep your arms folded neatly in your lap or by your side. Don't sit back as if you're not interested in what the person is saying. Stand or sit tall with your shoulders help back. Think of yourself as a shield protecting your inner emotions.
  •  Take a deep breath before speaking. When we take a deep breath, we are essentially filling our lungs, and then as the breath is released, it relaxes our entire body. It also helps you clear your mind to hear and engage in what the person is saying.
  •  Plan your conversation. If you have a difficult topic you need to cover with a difficult person, try planning what to say and how to move the conversation back to the topic or forward. This is called bridging in public relations, and it is moving the conversation or interview back on topic without being rude or appearing uncooperative.
  •  Take a 5 to 10-minute meditation break. If you lose control of your emotions, step away and take a break from the situation. I prefer stepping outside and getting fresh air. There is something about nature that helps me recenter my emotions. If the situation requires more time to relax, ask if you can pick up the conversation tomorrow.
  •  Consider how your emotions are impacting the situation. How you react can have just as much negative impact on the situation as the difficult person's reactions.
  •  Improving communication by identifying how the person likes to be communicated with. Some people like email, whereas others want a phone call. It is also important for you to think through the best way to communicate. Sometimes, we need over-communication to improve a working relationship.
  •  Stick to the facts and try to keep your emotions out of it. Sometimes how you feel is irrelevant to a working relationship. By sticking to the facts, you are essentially keeping your emotions out of your communications and responses.
  •  Be direct when your feelings are hurt – don't let it build up. Sometimes, the other person doesn't realize how they are making you feel. It is perfectly okay to politely tell them that being left out of a meeting feels hurtful.

When to Escalate the Problem

As I mentioned, this isn't the playground, and you aren't in first grade. Telling on someone is not something you do lightly. On the other hand, you deserve to be treated with respect. You do not deserve to be treated unfairly or with harsh criticism. When is it time to go to a manager and tell them there is a problem?

  1.  The behavior you are enduring when it goes against company policy. Check your employee handbook. There should be strict rules about treating others with respect.
  2.  The behavior toward you feels threatened.
  3.  The behavior is having a negative impact on your mental health. You are finding it hard to come to work every morning. Based on this person's treatment, you are starting to feel like you are bad at your career.
  4.  When the behavior is compromising the project, business, or client. Chances are that you are not the only person this difficult person treats poorly. It is time to speak up if you see it affecting a client or a project being completed.

Dealing with a difficult co-worker will happen to you at some point in your career. Unfortunately, there seems to be at least one in every workplace. However, you can take steps to help build a better relationship with this person or even improve the situation so that you are not emotionally drained at the end of the workday.

I appreciate you reading this article and hope it helps you build your career. Sign up for the Behind the Design newsletter for more business and career advice. We provide practical and actionable advice for interior designers.

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