, Gloucester, MA

September 28, 2012

3 ways to make working with difficult people easier

Personal Matters
Susan Britt

---- — Many people encounter negative and difficult co-workers at their workplaces. Here are three suggestions to help manage their behavior, and make your worklife more pleasurable. You will find that it may be an opportunity to practice the cardinal rule of changing another’s behavior: change your own behavior first by approaching the situation in an assertive, productive, and non-accusatory manner.

Problem: A co-worker is making your life on the job miserable. She makes negative, judgmental remarks about your work, your taste in clothes and your lifestyle in general. You dread going to work because you never know when an unexpected put-down will be aimed at something you say, do or wear.

Solution: Dis-empower your co-worker, using behavior that is appropriate to the situation and acceptable to your personal standards. People who put others down do so out of some emotional dysfunction because those who feel good about themselves do not have a need to make others feel bad in order to make themselves feel better. Negative people may be jealous, insensitive, ignorant, suffering from low self-esteem or all of these things at the same time.

Despite the fact that their behavior is essentially


problem, negative people create stress for those around them. They instinctively play on the insecurities and self-doubts of others, making them feel incompetent and defensive. This is doubly difficult in the workplace, where you need to feel competent.

To take back that which is rightfully yours — the right to work without fear and harassment, you need to defuse your co-worker’s negative power. For example:

Change your relationship to “all business.”

Don’t engage in any personal conversation with her, and do not reply or react to any remarks that aren’t absolutely necessary and related to work. It may take some time, but she will eventually get the message. If she challenges you, simply say “Jane, I would appreciate keeping our conversations strictly related to work issues.”

Put her on the spot.

This takes some nerve but is very effective. In a calm voice say, “Jane, why would you say something so negative? Are you unhappy today?” Or, “Has your work always been so perfect that you can criticize me? How do you think that remark makes me feel?” Or, “Have you ever thought about the things you say and how they might make other people feel?”

Be direct.

You may be doing her a favor because she is probably alienating other people as well. “Jane, I dread having personal conversations with you because you are often so negative about everything and everyone. I hope you’ll appreciate my honesty and think about what I’ve said.” Or, “If you have only negative things to say please refrain from talking to me. I really don’t appreciate being talked to that way. Thank you.”

These are simple ways to manage a co-worker’s negative behavior.

Most likely, however, she not only treats you badly but others as well. If she doesn’t respond to your clear communication, then it may be time to gather other co-workers, and address these issues as a group. The critical point here is for everyone to come away from such a confrontation feeling better about themselves, including the offender, so that there is a win/win atmosphere created. This meeting is not about attacking the offender’s behavior, but rather about sharing the impact of her behavior on each of those present. It also extremely important to offer a positive solution: “You know Jane, we want to enjoy your company and think that underneath all that negativity there is someone we would like to get to know.” Often a person with a negative attitude feels outside the group, not realizing she is creating the rejection herself. If well handled, a group meeting that kindly suggests that the group would welcome her can help her insecurity about not being wanted or not belonging.

If any readers use these approaches, I would very much like to hear about the results and your thoughts. A last note, sometimes avoidance as much as possible may be the best solution because some people have deep-seated personality and, or emotional problems that, unless treated by a professional, are extremely difficult to manage. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.


Based in Rockport, life coach and psychotherapist Susan Britt, M.Ed., a former university director of career and counseling services, teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, clarify and achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Comments and questions may be addressed to her at or 978-546-9431.