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Blog > How to Manage Yourself with Difficult Coworkers

The Arootah Return Blog

How to Manage Yourself with Difficult Coworkers

While you can’t change your coworker (or their behavior), a life coach explains how you can make an effort to change your own reactions.
Employee showing disdain on their face, sitting next to a colleague looking at their phone.

No office is perfect. So even if you generally enjoy — or even love — working with your colleagues, it’s likely, eventually, you’ll find yourself on a team with at least one coworker you just can’t stand.

Maybe they’re a younger colleague intent on changing the office workflow who just won’t take guidance from their older, more experienced coworkers. Or maybe they’re an uptight coworker who’s never open to an opinion that differs from their own. Perhaps you can’t really put a finger on why exactly you aren’t fond of that difficult coworker; you just know you despise having to work with them — to the point it’s making you miserable at the office (at best) or it’s hurting your team’s performance (yikes).

Whatever the case may be, you likely can’t change your coworker and their behavior — but you can try to change your own reactions to those behaviors.

Here’s what life and business coach and Arootah consultant Kirsten Franklin, esq., and Laxmi Dady, Arootah organizational development coach, have to say on the matter.

What’s the Real Issue?

According to Franklin, it’s important to get down to the root of the real issue. Why are you responding the way you are to the situation?

“I ask the question ‘why’ until I reach the answer,” Franklin says. “You know when you’ve found the answer because you’ll quite literally feel it in your body.”

Many clinicians corroborate this. In Discover Magazine, psychotherapist Sean Grover explains an emotional link between pain and muscle tension. Specifically, he notes a connection between feeling shoulder tension and “excessive burdens and responsibilities.” Grover also lists ties between:

  • Lower back pain = anger
  • GI issues = fear

Perhaps you’ve felt similar physical symptoms when you’re irked by that certain coworker?

Exploring the “Why?”

Franklin suggests going back to the why, sharing an example: You might make the complaint that your colleague always has to argue for opposite points in the middle of a meeting. They say they’re just playing devil’s advocate to ensure the team is seeing all angles, but it leaves you feeling frustrated and annoyed. In this instance, Franklin reiterates she would, ask “Why?” Why are you feeling annoyed by this situation?

To get more specific, you might explain that your coworker’s constant questioning and playing of devil’s advocate feels like they’re trying to throw you under the bus.

Again, Franklin recommends asking “Why?” Why would this person trying to throw you under the bus cause you to have a negative reaction?

Of course, in this hypothetical situation, you would say that it’s a negative because it feels like a personal attack. Easy explanation, right?

But that’s not where the questioning ends, even though this seems like a simple root cause — you don’t like your coworkers’ meeting style because it feels like a personal attack on you. Still, Franklin says to keep pressing “Why?” Why do you have such a problem with feeling like you’ve been personally attacked?

As you continue to probe, Franklin explains, “Your answer will start out kind of superficial and obvious — like ‘because he’s a jerk and that is rude,’ etcetera — but then it will end up relating to something personal from your past.”

In Franklin’s personal experience, she once used the “Why?” technique to question why she was having an unexplained, visceral reaction to a child slamming a refrigerator door. She went through the process and remembered that, when she was young, her older brother slammed the refrigerator door when he was upset, and she was hurt trying to stop him. She adds that people who have anxiety or PTSD often use this method to help determine the root cause for their physical reactions to stimuli (or triggers) and then learn to manage those reactions.

How to Respond Correctly

Pinpointing why you might be having this type of negative reaction or response to your colleague helps you develop your EQ, or emotional intelligence, which may help you control your own emotions. But you’ll also want to learn how to respond to colleagues in order to garner a response or behavior more in line with the communication style you’d prefer.

You might start, for example, by examining enneagrams and other similar personality type tests if your office has engaged in similar assessments. Such evaluations can (on a surface level) help you better learn what kind of person you might be dealing with and how you may be able to best respond to your coworker’s particular personality or behavioral type.

Adjusting how you respond could very well lead to a more cohesive (and peaceful) work environment.

Set an Example

Dady notes that changing your perspective can make a big difference in your experience. She suggests, rather than lingering over your dislike for the individual, acknowledging your own and changing your own negative behaviors while simultaneously looking for your coworkers’ strengths and playing to them.

And, of course, it’s always important to remain compassionate and open-minded.

“I always like to remind my clients we truly have no clue as to what’s going on in someone else’s world, from depression to loved ones’ illnesses or deaths to financial and other stressors,” Franklin reminds us. “Not saying that it excuses one’s behavior or you should sit back and accept verbal or other abuse, but just opening up to being more understanding and less judgmental always helps when working with people.”

The Bottom Line

Whether you’re a leader or a colleague who’s annoyed by a team member, understanding the “why” behind your reaction is important not only for keeping the peace in the office but ensuring a higher level of productivity and collaboration.

Working on your EQ in this way will not only serve you in the professional realm, but in your personal life, too.

If you’re looking to further develop your skills in the workplace, an Arootah Career Coach can help. A free, 30-minute results coaching session can assist you in identifying where you have room to improve, holding you accountable, introducing you to new opportunities and more, all with the result of finding your perfect professional fit.

Disclaimer: This article is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be and should not be taken as professional medical, psychological, legal, investment, financial, accounting, or tax advice. Arootah does not warrant or guarantee the accuracy, reliability, completeness, or suitability of its content for a particular purpose. Please do not act or refrain from acting based on anything you read in our newsletter, blog or anywhere else on our website.

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