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Dealing with Difficult People in the Workplace

Every person is different. They've had different experiences, different goals, different expectations, and different lives. Conflict is often the result of a difference of opinion or experience coming to a head as one person can't agree with the other person's lifestyle, convictions, or response to certain situations. This can be seen amongst spouses, families, friends, and co-workers. Conflict is inevitable, and in many cases, is a healthy part of a working relationship. That's why everyone should have a solid foundation for how to deal with difficult people.

5 Methods for Dealing with Difficult People at Work

Sarah is a nurse and is one of the most highly regarded nurses in the East Wing of the hospital. Dr. Smith is also well-regarded and is taking care of the same patient as Sarah. Dr. Smith confronts Sarah and sternly asks why their patient's blood pressure medication was being held for the past few days without Dr. Smith being notified. Sarah calmly responded that she wasn't sure and would look into the situation and follow up with Dr. Smith. Dr. Smith lost his temper, yelling "There's no need to look! I've been pouring over the charts for 30 minutes, and it makes no sense!" Sarah calmly responded that she had only been overseeing this patient for 3 hours and was unsure, and then walked away in efforts to remove herself from the situation.
With that context in mind, what is the appropriate response to this?​

Be Calm

Staying calm gave Sarah the upper hand as she remained in control, while the physician openly demonstrated a lack of control. In the grand scheme of things, this makes Sarah appear more respectable and gives her a foothold if the situation continues. Additionally, staying calm can de-escalate a situation.

Consider the Offender's Intentions

Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the drama of the moment and not thoroughly think through the situation. Take a moment to consider the intentions of Dr. Smith. Was his goal to be mean? Was he attempting to embarrass Sarah? Was he concerned for his patient and reacted accordingly, letting his emotions get the best of him? It's hard to be sure, but from this interaction, we can gather that Dr. Smith more than likely reacted this way out of concern for his patient. While not a justification, it brings out common ground between Sarah and Dr. Smith as both want what's best for their patient. Understanding this may cause Sarah to extend grace towards the doctor and overlook this isolated offense.

Express Your Intentions

Miscommunication is often the root of conflict. One way that Sarah could have handled this situation is by taking a moment to express to Dr. Smith what her intentions are. She could say, "Dr. Smith, I understand your concern. I want what's best for our patient as well, but I don't know the answer to your question. If we work together, perhaps we can find the answer and solution." This directly communicates to Dr. Smith that Sarah doesn't know the answer but is willing to help find it.

Focus on the Future

Sarah was not responsible for holding the blood pressure medication from the patient, and she can't change that. She also can't change Dr. Smith's reaction. It's easy to get caught in the emotion and be frustrated, but it's most beneficial to look at the situation and determine how this could be prevented in the future. Sarah can only control herself and should react accordingly.

Escalate to a Higher Authority

In the case of Sarah and Dr. Smith, escalation would not be warranted. However, there are situations when repeat offenders should be reported to a higher authority. Keep in mind, this should be reserved for continuing or extreme circumstances. 

What if I'm the Difficult Person?

Using the same example of Sarah and the physician, what could Dr. Smith do if he realized that he was the difficult person in this scenario?

Consider Your Actions

Whether it be because you realized that you were difficult or it was brought to your attention, you should take some time to consider your actions. Why did you react the way you did? How did you probably make the other person feel? How can you avoid this in the future? These are some good questions to ask yourself.

Acknowledge and Apologize

It's not enough just to spend a few minutes thinking about what you did wrong, you need to take action. Go to the person you offended, acknowledge your mistake, and apologize.

Be a Good Leader

Though it may be difficult to acknowledge your wrongdoing and apologize for it, it shows impeccable leadership skills. Doing the right thing can be hard, but it's worth it. After all, being a good leader makes everyone around you happier.

Grace in Frustration

Everyone is human and makes mistakes. See the humanity in your co-workers and extend grace where applicable. It not only gives them a chance to redeem themselves but will help prevent you from becoming bitter against them – because then maybe you might become a difficult person.
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