Think of one of the most stressful relationships you’ve ever had or person who can really irk you — intentionally or not. Who is he or she? Where in your life does this person play a role?
If you’re thinking of a coworker, you’re not alone. Many of us experience frustration while dealing with certain individuals at our job. Unlike our friends, we can’t always choose who our professional colleagues are. And unlike our family, we don’t always get to (or want to) develop more personal relationships with our colleagues, either.
If someone at work has been bugging you, then it’s worth it to learn how to deal with them better. Achieving this will do far more than just give you peace of mind. Improving your communication and minimizing your emotional response to “that” coworker can also improve your productivity and overall job satisfaction. This poses a clear benefit to your company’s bottom line (what employer wouldn’t want a more focused and fulfilled employee?), and may even give you some leverage by establishing yourself as someone with positive interpersonal skills.
Here are four tools and strategies you can use to better deal with that frustrating coworker and potentially improve your workplace experience overall.
1. Go for Polite Yet Direct Honesty
It may be uncomfortable, but addressing conflict directly through an honest yet polite conversation is often the most effective way to create some peace between yourself and a difficult colleague.
If there is a specific behavior or issue that’s bothering you, then it’s best to speak to that. Avoid making broad generalizations (hint: this would include saying things like “you always” or “you never”). Instead, remember the old “criticism sandwich” technique: first, acknowledge something you genuinely appreciate about this person. Next, state your specific concern and emphasize how it makes you feel. Follow up with another genuine expression of appreciation or a question that gives him or her the chance to respond thoughtfully.
Here’s an example on how to deal with a coworker who frequently talks over you: “Steve, I admire how passionate you are about this assignment. But I felt frustrated when you interrupted me during the meeting this morning. Do you think moving forward we can make sure we both have an opportunity to speak?
Express your specific concern as kindly but as directly as possible. You can get your point across without being manipulative or mean. People are far less likely to listen and consider other peoples’ perspectives when they feel like they’re being personally attacked.
Of course, if personal attacks or unethical behaviors are involved (or if your coworker isn’t being receptive), then you may need to speak directly to your boss or HR rep. Such issues can be highly disruptive in the workplace and are often best dealt with by the employer. Plus, there could be other coworkers (or customers/clients) experiencing the same frustrations with this person. Voicing your concern could make a broader impact for everyone.
2. Try to Speak to Your Coworker’s Values
We love talking about things we love. We also spend the majority of our time, money, and energy on the people and things that reflect our highest values. For some of us, our highest value is our family, for others it’s our health, pets, travel, or even our cars. The exact value doesn’t matter — acknowledging it is what can be helpful.
Knowing what a coworker’s highest values are is a great way to understand where he or she is coming from, which may help you feel more compassion and less frustration in certain moments. A quick look at a colleague’s desk or a few conversations about what they like to do outside of work can give you some clear hints. You can learn to build more trust and respect between the two of you by speaking to your coworker’s values in moments when you want to address a behavior or situation.
As an example, you can try this with that the coworker who won’t stop talking about his children while you’re trying to work: “You know John, I’d love to hear more about your kid’s play. Can we chat more during lunch? Right now I’d like to focus on my work.” This is a win-win: you’re acknowledging your colleague’s strong family values and creating space for him to talk about it with you — just not when you’re trying to get something done.
Like any human, your frustrating coworker will also tend to react strongly when he or she perceives that one of their highest values is being threatened or challenged. This is where a lot of our “negative” traits are birthed from. For instance, your coworker may seem bossy and try to talk over you a lot — but if you learn she grew up in a large house where she and her siblings had to compete for attention, then her attempts to overpower may make more sense.
This isn’t “condoning” rude or non-team-player behaviors. Instead, by understanding your coworker’s values and personal background, you create a buffer that stops you from reacting as strongly to annoying behaviors. In effect, it’s a reminder to yourself that you’re only responsible for how you feel — and certainly not responsible for your coworker’s behavior. Even behavior that seems “personal” against you almost never is.
Of course, if you’re a boss or supervisor, then in a sense your employees’ behavior is your responsibility, especially if it’s disruptive to the work environment. That said, remember it’s a professional responsibility — not a personal one. People are rarely doing things “to you.” They are usually just trying — consciously or not — to get their needs and values met.
3. Take an Honest Look at Your Behavior and Beliefs
In general, other people reflect the qualities that we have in ourselves. If someone’s pushiness, laziness, or frequent gossip is irritating you, take a quiet moment and ask yourself where and how you express that trait, too. Do you ever exhibit this same frustrating behavior at work? Recall where and when. Is it possible you’re contributing to this adversarial relationship as much as your frustrating coworker is?
If you’re not seeing this annoying trait in yourself, keep looking: it could be in a completely different area of your life. You may not be lazy at work, for instance — but perhaps you’re lazy when it comes to cleaning your home or maintaining a consistent exercise routine.
The point in this thought exercise is to practice a little humility. Realize we’re all human, and we all have positive and negative traits. We don’t have to “get along” with everyone, but we also can realize we don’t have to take everything personally, either.
It’s incredibly empowering to reach the point where you realize other people don’t have to change for you to tolerate being around them. Instead, you can learn to let go of their behavior — and have a little compassion knowing you’ve been there, too. Understanding that you and your frustrating coworker are probably more alike than different can help you with this process of letting go, which with a little practice may help you be less irked by water-cooler gossip, frequent interruptions, bossiness, or whatever else is bugging you.
4. Create Some Space
The best self-defense? Don’t be there. Sometimes, the most effective way to deal with a frustrating coworker is to put some distance between you and him/her. It’s especially important for those moments when despite your best efforts, he or she really does just “get” to you, and you find yourself silently (or not-so-silently) steaming.
This doesn’t have to be overt avoidance: it could be as simple as going for a walk during your lunch break, taking your breaks in a different time or place, or wearing a pair of headphones to minimize the sound of their voice in your ears.
Gratitude Is Key: For Yourself and Your Coworker
It may sound strange, but learn to be grateful for your frustrating coworker. He or she may just be helping you develop improved communication skills, greater empathy, a deeper understanding of yourself, and an increased sense of autonomy.
And remember that improving your work relationships requires that you are also supporting your healthiest self. Get plenty of sleep, eat nutritious food, exercise, participate in enjoyable hobbies outside of work, and consider adding a daily mindfulness or meditation routine. The better you take care of yourself, the better equipped you’ll be at handling frustrating situations or people at work — or in any area of life.
So, go ahead. Thank that frustrating coworker — he or she may be giving you the perfect opportunity to grow.