Dealing with difficult people - conflict in the workplace

How should I deal with difficult people? This is a question I regularly encounter and which I have been asked to write about.

Our places of work are increasingly pressurised. Working with people can be emotionally and physically draining. Add heavy workloads and long working hours to the equation and it’s hardly surprising that tensions arise. Often we have to manage a series of complex relationships on a daily basis with colleagues, clients, suppliers and other stakeholders.

This article looks at difficult relationships between adults at work and suggests how to improve your own response to conflict in the workplace.

How do difficult relationships occur?

Conflict among colleagues can result from many different causes, for example:

•  Unbalanced teamwork – where one member does not pull his or her weight
•  Lack of support from a mentor or manager
•  Disagreements over approaches to particular issues
•  Competitiveness over areas of responsibility or expertise
•  People just don’t ‘get on’

The common factor is conflict: a direct disagreement between participants.
Disagreements consist of both the objective point at issue and the subjective emotional involvement invested by the participants. Both elements must be addressed for effective resolution. Resolving the emotional side requires you to understand the situation from the other person’s point of view. This can be particularly hard when your personalities are very different.

They’re impossible to deal with!

We cannot get on with everyone we meet. All of us have character traits that will cause difficulty for others. We need to understand those differences in order to deal with them. We also need to understand how conflict can arise in dealing with a difficult person.  Different personality types react in characteristic ways in conflict situations.  Recognising these dynamics is the first step to coping with the situation, and you can begin by recognising your own characteristics: are you the difficult person? Is it your behaviour that is causing problems?

Improving your own response to conflict:

•  Learn to recognise and control your defence mechanism;
•  Learn to listen;
•  Be open and receptive;
•  Ensure that you understand what is being said to you;
•  Learn about yourself, your own strengths and weaknesses;
•  Try to work on your weaknesses.

Take time to calm down

If you have argued with a colleague, particularly if the argument has taken place in a public area, such as an open office, you may feel embarrassed. You may be wondering what others think of you or be concerned about your professional reputation.
The most important thing to remember is to give everyone time to calm down. If you try to tackle the problem when emotions are still running high, you could cause more harm than good. Take some time and space to think about what happened and what you would like to do next.
If you have argued with a colleague, it is tempting to sweep things under the carpet, to act as if the argument didn’t take place, but this can be damaging in the long run, and is likely to breed resentment. Accept that your colleague’s point of view is valid and deserves a hearing. If you are willing to communicate honestly and openly with your colleague you have a good chance of restoring your working relationship.

Discuss the issue

Once everyone has calmed down, it is a good idea to ask your colleague if you can meet one-to-one in a neutral place to discuss what has happened. If things are particularly strained you could arrange for someone to sit in on the meeting and mediate if necessary.

•  Acknowledge that there’s a conflict. Make sure your colleague does too.
•  Ask open but direct questions about your colleague’s understanding of the situation.
•  Confirm your understanding. For example, “If I understand correctly, this is how you see the situation...”
•  Try to remain calm, even if you feel some of their comments are unjustified. If you're losing your temper, you need to take time out, so suggest rescheduling the meeting.
•  When discussing your role in the conflict, use “I” statements rather than “People” or “One”. Encourage others to do the same.
•  Talk about your colleague’s behaviour, rather than about him or her as a person, which might easily provoke a defensive reaction.
•  Be clear about what outcome you want and ask them what they want.
•  At the end of the meeting, it may be a good idea to agree some action points, with clear timescales, either about the issue you argued over and/or how you communicate with one another going forward.
•  Whether you come to an agreement, agree to work toward a resolution that benefits everyone and schedule a follow-up meeting or other review mechanism if necessary.
•  You may be surprised to find that communicating openly and honestly actually strengthens your relationship.


However, if your meeting proves unsuccessful and your working relationship continues to be difficult, you may wish to seek the advice and support of your line manager or a senior member of staff, or from an external source. Sometimes an external facilitator or mediator can assist when two or more people would like their relationships to be better. This can often prevent problems from escalating and keeps the control of the outcome with the parties concerned.

The next article in this series will look at strategies for dealing with different types of difficult people.


© Barbara Capstick

April 2012.