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“Anytime you find yourself up against somebody who frustrates you, that person is telling you that you’re at the limits of your competence.”
Diana McLain Smith — The Elephant in the Room: How Relationships Make or Break the Success of Leaders and Organizations.

Puts a different spin on the annoying coworker who’s always late to meetings, the boss who demands too much and credits too little, the direct report who just rubs you the wrong way, doesn’t it? Difficult relationships aggravate us – sometimes incredibly so – because we don’t know how to handle them. As McLain Smith writes, “You need to make a conscious choice: do you need to learn how to deal with that person in order to be successful?” If the answer is yes, the solution is communication.

What Is a Difficult Relationship?

Are difficult work relationships ones in which you simply disagree? Or is there a significant value difference? Is the behavior of the other person aberrant – or abhorrent? The answer is, of course, “yes”! “Difficult” is entirely subjective. One person may think a situation is fraught with trouble; another may see or feel no problems whatsoever. The word “difficult” connotes different things for different people.

It depends on each person, and on each set of circumstances. Why is this important? Because it means that, no matter what, you’re virtually guaranteed to encounter people and sets of circumstances that are difficult. You cannot avoid difficult work relationships – but you can cultivate the skills to break the “limits of your competence” and handle it successfully.

Communicating with Difficult People

What usually happens when we encounter a difficult person in the workplace (or any place, for that matter)? We become the victim. It relieves us of responsibility. But as Tony Schwartz writes in the Harvard Business Review:

The problem with being a victim is that you cede the power to influence your circumstances. The painful truth when it comes to the people who trigger you is this: You’re not going to change them. The only person you have the possibility of changing is yourself.

What can you do to “change yourself” and push the boundaries of your competence?

  • Remember the difficult person is human too. Likely, the person with whom you’re having trouble is not being difficult on purpose – or to spite you. Keep in mind that they’re dealing with stress, tension, anxiety, family, life, obligations, and a host of other “stuff” too. Try to curb knee-jerk reactions. Instead, make the effort to think from their perspective, and, better yet, ask. “What’s going on? Are you all right?” It’ll disarm them, if nothing else.

  • Bite the bullet and talk to them. Have a colleague who’s making “jokes” that aren’t funny or blames you when things go awry? Call them out on the carpet. Respectfully, of course. It’s hard, but talk to them about the situation. Many people lack self-awareness; they may not realize they’re being offensive, rude, or otherwise difficult. And if they do know, maybe they’ll stop if they know you’re on to them and not willing to take it.

  • Consider whether you’re the source of your own misery. Say you share a space with a coworker who’s habitually messy. Files all over the place. Old coffee cups littering the desk. Who knows what stuffed into the drawers. Does this person get the work done on time and up to par? Is he respectful and attentive to customers/clients/other employees? Maybe those coffee cups are your problem, not theirs.

  • Evaluate your interactions. McLain Smith suggests taking a step back. How did an interaction unfold? What happened? What did you say/do, and what did the other party say/do? “You can’t come up with an intelligent way of altering the dynamic until you know what the dynamic is. You have to map the interaction, which creates a way of understanding how each person’s behavior is eliciting a behavior the other person doesn’t like.”

    By altering the dynamic, you’ll be able to move beyond, “This guy’s a jerk,” or “This lady’s so difficult,” and really examine their motives and come to an understanding of their behaviors.

  • If all else fails… Minimize exposure. Someone’s constantly difficult? Chronically cranky? Persistently unpleasant? If you can, just minimize the contact you have and the need to interact with them. You can’t do this all the time, but you can cut face-time with difficult people dramatically by making a conscious choice not to engage in conflict.

There is no doubt: difficult people test the limits of our competence – and our patience. Insofar as we’re able, we should try to push through those limits and expand our ability to deal with adversity, even if adversity strews old coffee cups through our workspace! The key is not falling into a victim mentality when confronted with difficult work relationships: if we want a solution to a difficult problem (or person), we have to step up and create it.