Three Ways to Assert Your Needs with Difficult Coworkers

Does it make you uncomfortable to say “no” to others? Do you avoid telling them how you feel in hopes that the problem will just go away? Do you feel like you are constantly trying to please other people, but at the end of the day they still seem displeased with you? Maybe there is a boss or coworker who completely overwhelms your ability to act; leaving you feeling miserable and resentful long after the workday is over. Spending weeks and even years in such a situation takes a serious toll on your physical and emotional well-being. What’s more, these problems may very likely follow you beyond work because this could be the manner in which you relate to the rest of the world.

If you often feel dominated by a boss or a certain coworker then it may be time to think more about your own relationship with control and your unexamined operating principles when dealing with difficult work personalities.

In my last two posts, I discussed the concept of locus of control as it relates to coping with difficult personalities at work. Locus of control is where we mentally attribute the source of control over events and is a critical characteristic to self-identify. It’s important to understand if you hope to work through problematic interpersonal issues at work.

Those with an internal locus often believe that everything is (or should be) under their control. They are plagued with the burden of feeling responsible for fixing nearly everything.

In contrast, those with an external locus tend to feel that they have little influence over outside events. Such thinking can be summed up as “I have no control and there is nothing I can do about it.” Some take this belief to an extreme, creating what I termed an active external locus. Those with an active external locus tend to blame others for their problems.

An additional aspect of an external locus is an approach shared by many and what I call a passive external locus of control. As I discussed in my post entitled “How to Manage Difficult Personalities at Work,” those with a passive external locus tend to be people pleasers and conflict avoiders.

Over time, such a tendency can leave you feeling resentful of others and hopeless about the possibility of change. The cumulative effect of yielding to everyone else’s needs and putting up with difficult personalities day after day can leave coworkers wondering just where you stand.

Even though you may constantly agree with others and bend over backwards to help them move their agenda forward, over time many people likely register that you are not necessarily being honest about how you feel. You may also be missing out on some pretty great feedback that gets lost because of your tendency to avoid conflict. Many people with a passive external locus are also vulnerable to lashing out in frustration at unexpected times due to the sheer frustration of holding everything inside.

Why Most People Fail in Setting “Good Boundaries”

I find that most of the passive external locus people I work with have been told at one time or another that they just need to “set better boundaries.” Such a general statement is on the right track, but can often fall far short because it is asking you to do what is already so difficult to accomplish in the first place.

When attempts at this vague strategy fail, those with a passive external locus are left feeling even more ineffective and hopeless. This is because the crucial issue is really about your ability to assert your own needs.

What is a good way to begin asserting your needs?

Look within yourself:

·         Find a quiet place to at home to sit with your eyes closed.

·         Think about how you feel when avoiding conflict.

·         How do you feel about remaining silent or acquiescing to a problem coworker or manager?

Now, as best you can, set those feelings aside for a moment and do the following:

1) Formulate a Plan

Strong feelings aside, what job-related ideas have you had (big and small) that you would like to implement?

Write them down.

2) Start Small

Look for opportunities to assert your self in low risk situations at work. A low risk situation would be one in which you and the other person have very little to lose.The more trivial the matter, the better.

When you notice one of the small, trivial issues coming up in an interaction, venture your opinion. It doesn’t matter at this point if the other person agrees or disagrees with your thought.

3) Build Momentum

Over time, slowly increase the rate and seriousness of the thoughts you are sharing.

It will help if you have someone outside of work to share the tensions and successes of this experiment. If you find yourself stuck, return to lower risk matters.

This process of increasing your degree of self-assertion with difficult personalities is not just about how you feel, but how others are receiving you. We all deserve to be respected and valued, however, the culture of many workplaces today places a low value on these critical needs.

Increasing your level of self-assertion may in reality have little impact on you always “winning” your point. However, it can give you the experience of voicing more of your needs and views so you are not left feeling both fearful of expressing yourself and angry with for always remaining silent.