Five Steps for Getting Along Better with Difficult Coworkers


Trying to get along with a difficult coworker can feel like a thankless and unrewarding task. There’s already so much actual work to do. But when you add the inevitable layer of office politics and difficult personalities to the mix, it‘s easy to become overwhelmed.

In my last post, I discussed how your locus of control can further complicate this type of an issue and drain your mental energy through unproductive and self-sabotaging strategies. I also conveyed that locus of control refers to whether you attribute the source of control for events as coming from within or outside of yourself.

For those with an external locus of control, managing difficult co-workers can be especially tricky. Someone who has this tendency blames others or outside events for all of their problems. In my experience, it’s rare that the people who fall into this camp recognize themselves; this makes self-diagnosis problematic. However, if you think this may be you, try asking yourself the following questions:

1)      Do you feel your shortcomings and failures are under constant attack by more than two people in your business life?

2)      Do you quickly defend yourself whenever you receive any feedback or criticism?

3)      Do you rationalize your own mistakes while blaming others for theirs?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you might want to consider the following:

1)      Try pretending you are the person who is criticizing you. Think about their perspective, background, values and job position. Even if you feel they are out of bounds, can you acknowledge that their criticism might validly represent their subjective experience of you or your performance?

2)      Ask yourself if their feedback has any basis in reality given the current situation. If it does, try to verbally acknowledge this point to the person in question. This does NOT mean that you must agree with them. You are simply affirming that you recognize their point.

3)      Take an honest inventory of what is under your control. On a piece of paper draw three columns. The titles of the columns should be “Things I cannot possibly control,” “Things I could possibly control with help”, and “Things I can definitely control.” Spend at least a week thinking about and filling in your answers for each column. At the end of the week, if your perspective on which column any of these items fit has changed, cross out the item and write it in the new column.

4)      Try to imagine discussing some of the items from your lists with the person in question. Sitting at home in a quiet place, close your eyes and spend at least 10 minutes visualizing the following scenario:

a.       Picture yourself asking the problem coworker to discuss some of your concerns about their criticisms.

b.      Visualize the two of you sitting down together at the office.

c.       Notice uncomfortable thoughts and feelings of tension that arise in your body as you picture yourself discussing items from each column that you feel are appropriate to share.

d.      Imagine this person smiling and nodding in response to your thoughts.

e.      Breathe in for 6 seconds through your nose and breathe out for six seconds through your mouth.

f.        Continue breathing in this way as you repeat this process over the next 10 minutes.

Practice this exercise every day for the next week.

5)      Put the following scene into practice:

a.        Ask the coworker for a sit down.

b.      While you are together, pay attention to your breath. Quietly feel the motion of air going into and out of your body as you engage with the coworker.

c.       If you start to experience strong emotions as you speak, return your attention to your breathing for a moment.

d.      Address the items from your lists that you have identified as appropriate to share with the coworker.

e.      If you feel strong emotions continuing to rise, try to notice your feet and the sensation of their being in contact with the floor. Know that you are grounded to the earth at this moment.

f.        Continue the discussion.

g.       If you begin to feel completely overwhelmed, excuse yourself to use the restroom.

h.      Focus on your breathing and the sensation of your feet touching the ground while you are gone. Splash a little cold water on your face and decide if you can continue.

i.         If you are still having trouble thinking clearly and feel emotionally overwhelmed, end the discussion quickly and politely once you return.

This exercise will not automatically change the other person’s reaction to you, but it will put you in a better position to be heard. It will also give you the experience of taking a new path to address an ongoing problem.

Be honest with yourself after this exchange. Did the problem person respond differently in any way to you? Did they offer any suggestions to move the dialogue forward or did they continue to criticize you? Did the discussion get personal or did it remain work-related and professional?

Look at your list again and determine if you learned anything new from your discussion. Are there any revisions to the list? If you identify any new opportunities, ask for another meeting with your coworker.

All of this important information can help you move forward, no matter what your locus of control.

In my next post, I will address strategies for those with a passive external locus to be more clearly seen and heard by others in their workplace.