How to communicate with difficult people at work

Dunja Jovanovic

Last updated on: March 29, 2022

As we all know (sadly, often from experience), not all work environments are positive. And, it’s not the lack of office happy hours and free gym memberships that causes a workplace to be toxic — but the difficult people who work there. The absence of good team communication is typically a leitmotiv in such environments.

In my recently conducted LinkedIn poll, a whopping 94% of people said they had to deal with difficult people in the workplace at some point.

As this is clearly a widespread problem, in this article, we will learn how to communicate with difficult people at work and (hopefully) stay sane while doing so.

How to communicate with difficult people at work

Determine what makes them difficult

There are different types of difficult people, so your first step is to troubleshoot the problem.

What makes them difficult? Are they:

  • Rude, 
  • Arrogant, 
  • Dismissive, 
  • Bossy,
  • Always late,
  • Micromanaging,
  • Stealing your ideas and presenting them as theirs,
  • Or just plain annoying? 

Understanding what exactly bothers you is crucial to determining your strategy and deciding how to handle the situation. 

According to Michael Moran, owner, and CEO of the recruiting firm Green Lion Search Group, here’s how you can determine what makes a person difficult to communicate with:

The first step is to define for yourself the specific behaviors or attitudes that make the individual difficult to work with. Next, put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and try to identify the motivation and intent behind the behavior. Identify where the other person is coming from and what they’re hoping to achieve by acting the way they do. This will also help you gauge if you’re dealing with objectively hostile/toxic behavior or if it’s more a personality clash or pet peeve.

The type of “difficult” behavior you’re dealing with will be the main factor in what step you take next if talking to the person doesn’t work. If it’s bullying, harassment, or other hostile behavior, you should talk to your manager or HR to get their help in stopping the behavior. Otherwise, honestly assess the behavior’s impact on your work environment, and what options are open to you that could minimize your contact.

Focus on what you can control

There are many things in this world we have absolutely no control over. In fact, we have no control over the majority of things. Trying to change others to fit our expectations and wants is usually a losing game. 

However, there is something we’re in charge of — our reactions and responses. So, our reactions and responses are what we should focus on.

With that being said, it’s important to self-reflect regularly and think if there’s a possibility it’s actually us who are the problem.

In the words of Dr. Subodh Simon Karmarkar, Gestalt Therapist, Doctorate in Management with emphasis on Organizational Leadership, Author, and Public Speaker, here’s how you can do that:

The first step to face difficult workers starts with conducting a self-assessment or CDIL (Character Defect Inventory List). 

In just about every business, a regular inventory is taken and items that have expired or are about to expire are discarded. With this step we are doing the same thing with our defects, thereby raising our emotional intelligence quotient. The individual takes a rigorously honest look at what is in them that might be causing some internal friction. 

With this introspective step, the individual identifies how he or she is showing up or presenting oneself. The natural progression to this step is being armed or prepared to respond, as opposed to reacting when interacting with “difficult people.”  

The previous two executable actions: 

(1)  prevent you from taking it personally and 

(2) not getting baited easily. When you are willing to learn more about yourself, you are in a better position to learn about the other person. Working on your own issues empowers you with healthy coping mechanisms. When you are firmly grounded with your emotions in check, you control the conversation and keep the focus on the topic or project.

Don’t take it personally

You thought about the situation and you’re fairly sure you’re not the problem — you do your best to be professional, helpful, and kind.

Why do the people you are communicating with behave that way, then?

They could be going through a stressful period. Or, they could genuinely be an unpleasant person. Either way, it’s likely that it has nothing to do with you —so, don’t take it personally. 

Have you ever heard the quote: “What Susie says of Sally says more of Susie than of Sally”? People behave through the prism of various factors, such as:

  • Their character, 
  • Their previous experiences,
  • Their beliefs and expectations,
  • Their emotional state and mental health, 
  • The environment they grew up in, etc. 

It’s a reflection of who they are, not who you are.

Ph.D. and Co-author of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), Ralph H. Kilmann, provided some insight on this:

Suffice it to say that deep within each type [of difficult people] is an insecure and unhappy person, one who copes with their inner conflicts and negative self-image by projecting them onto other group members — and then attacking those others for displaying those highly negative characteristics. 

Indeed, troublemakers spend most of their energy surviving, protecting, projecting, attacking, and thus living out their problems on others. There is a stark and extreme intensity in their life-and-death struggle with the rest of the world. And make no mistake about it, troublemakers are at war — they have little or no inner peace. 

Although troublemakers have a tough time receiving any kind of feedback, a counseling session (via an in-person or virtual meeting) is the most direct way to convey the corporate message: Troublemaking behavior will no longer be tolerated in this organization.”

Communicate about the issue

Some people are just impossible to talk to. 

But, if that’s not the case, try to have a constructive conversation with the person causing you trouble. While doing that, do your absolute best to keep your cool.

Try to confront them about their behavior. While doing so, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Set your intentions before the conversation occurs. Don’t lose sight of what are your goals and what are you trying to achieve by having this interaction.
  • Be professional and treat them with respect, but stand up for yourself if they’re disrespectful to you. You’re under no obligation to tolerate disrespect.
  • Don’t focus on them as a person and the intricacies of their personality, but rather on the issue itself. Don’t think of it as you vs. them, but you (as a team) vs. the issue.

Here are a few more valuable tips by Eliane Terrataca, Communication Specialist Blogger and YouTuber who graduated in social communication:

“01. Try to understand where they are coming from. Oftentimes, the reason why someone is acting difficult is because they are dealing with their own personal issues or struggles. If you can try to understand where they are coming from, it can help to defuse the situation.

02. Communicate assertively. It is always important to be assertive and clear in your communication. This means avoiding both passive and aggressive communication styles, and instead focusing on communicating your needs and expectations in a direct and respectful way.

03. Set boundaries with difficult people. So that they know what behavior is and is not acceptable. This can help to prevent further conflict and difficulties.

04. Know when to walk away. There will be some situations where the best course of action is simply to walk away and not engage with the difficult person. This is often the case when someone is being verbally abusive or otherwise behaving in a way that is making you feel unsafe.”

💡 Pumble Pro Tip

Attempting to communicate with a difficult person might develop into conflict. If that happens, here are some resources that might help:

Explain your point of view and listen to theirs

Explain your point of view clearly and calmly. Refrain from accusing and blaming the other person, as that will only make them defensive, and your constructive conversation will be gone with the wind. 

It’s best to use “I” statements instead of “You” statements.

For example:

I feel exhausted and frustrated when I have to work on your tasks on top of my own workload, which is already quite heavy.” instead of

You are incapable of doing your goddamn job and you have no respect for others and their time!” 

Keep the situation calm by listening actively and attentively when it’s their turn to talk. Be compassionate.

I learned a very valuable lesson in the book Never Split the Difference by Chriss Voss, and it goes something like this: everyone wants to be heard and seen. As Voss wrote, “Psychotherapy research shows that when individuals feel listened to, they tend to listen to themselves more carefully and to openly evaluate and clarify their own thoughts and feelings.”

This idea is further expanded by Doug Noll, lawyer and professional mediator with decades of experience in managing and resolving conflicts:

The go-to foundational skill that will work with every difficult person is known as affect labeling. Affect labeling means that, as the listener, you ignore the words, read the emotions, and reflect back the emotions with a simple “you” statement. Brain scanning studies show affect labeling to calm an angry, upset person in less than 90 seconds. As I teach my graduate students, de-escalate the difficult person, then engage them in problem-solving. Essentially, you must “listen to them into existence” before you can address the problem causing the difficulty.

Be open to hearing the other person’s side of the story. 

There’s a chance they didn’t mean to come across the way they did and it’s just miscommunication — as always, open communication is the key to solving many issues.

Example of someone not realizing they come across as harsh (Pumble, a business messaging app)
Example of someone not realizing they come across as harsh (Pumble, a business messaging app)

💡 Pumble Pro Tip

As the author of the book spent his whole career dealing with difficult people, I recommend reading Never Split the Difference in full to learn numerous valuable lessons. But, that’s not the only book that can help you — we actually have a whole reading list:

Take time to destress after spending time with difficult people

Last, but definitely not least, take time to relax and destress after dealing with difficult people. Such encounters can be frustrating, emotionally draining, and anxiety-inducing. 

I once heard someone say “I need to take care of myself, I haven’t found myself on the street” and it has stuck with me ever since. 

You also need to take care of yourself, as stress can negatively affect you both physically and mentally.

According to Mayo Clinic, stress symptoms can include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability or anger
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs
  • Undereating or overeating, etc.

There are many ways to destress — pick one that you like the most and that fits your schedule and lifestyle. Here are some of the most popular and the fastest ones:

  • Take a walk, preferably in nature
  • Practice breathing exercises and/or meditate
  • Do something creative (if you’re not an artsy person, you can try adult coloring books, for example)
  • Vent to someone you trust — it’s best to choose a friend or a family member, not a coworker
  • Listen to some feel-good music
  • Organize a spa evening (you can do it at home, too)
  • Play with your pet
  • Make a hot cup of tea and spend some time offline, just being present

💡 Pumble Pro Tip

If you’re working remotely, check out these wellness ideas:

What to do if communication doesn’t work?

According to Andrew Lokenauth, People Manager, Finance Executive & Career Coach, the answer to this question is to involve your manager and HR:

“If your colleague is repeatedly rude and disrespectful, and you can’t work out a solution, you should speak to your manager for advice, as well as document your issue with human resources, to keep a record of the negative behavior.” 

You should try to resolve the issue privately and turn to a higher authority only if you exhausted all the other options.

In the meantime, try to keep contact with that person to a minimum. Think if there is someone else who can take their place. 

For example, if your mentor is causing you trouble, try to figure out if there’s another senior colleague who will be happy to answer your questions when you get stuck.

Conclusion: Focus on your (re)actions and well-being

The most important thing to remember is that you can’t control other people and their actions — so you should focus on what you can control: your responses and (re)actions. 

That mostly means to:

  1. Not take it personally (or at least attempt to do so)
  2. Communicate with a person causing you trouble about the issue
  3. Let them know you won’t tolerate disrespect and you’ll stand up for yourself

Try to solve the problem between you two, without involving other people, but if that doesn’t work, reach out to someone for help. No matter what society tells us, dreading coming to work is not okay and it shouldn’t be normalized.

Author: DunjaJovanovic

Dunja Jovanovic is a writer and researcher passionate about communication and psychology, especially in a professional setting. As she's no stranger to working remotely, she likes helping others survive in a virtual work environment and communicate as effectively as possible. When she's not writing, she's probably trying out the communication improvement strategies she stumbled upon during her never-ending research.

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