How to Deal with Difficult Coworkers: A Simple But Not Easy Solution

On today’s blog we have a fantastic guest, Sarah Lahoud talking about how to deal with difficult coworkers.

Ever feel so freaking frustrated with a coworker that you can feel your blood to start to boil? 

You feel like everything you say is misunderstood, everything you try to do is blocked with some ridiculous regulation they make up on the spot, and they’re just making you as miserable in work as you could possibly get. As if your job wasn’t miserable enough.

I can relate so much it’s ridiculous.

As a manager of a dance studio, I used to have to deal with customers every day and all day long. Parents, kids, grandparents, nannies, I could talk to them all. Even when they came at at me with a huge, venomous complaint, I could usually communicate in a way that connected and left both of us feeling happy and satisfied that the problem was addressed with love and professionalism.

But coworkers could be a whole other story. 

There’s the fact that you’re around them a lot longer than customers. You could be around the same coworker for an entire day straight, and if they’ve completely drained your energy and excitement and optimism in the first hour, you just know that that negativity is going to continue until there’s nothing left of you but an angry, boiling shell of a human being.

It’s almost like being in a relationship with your husband or boyfriend or even mother when the other person is facing a big and difficult time in their life and they get testy, mean, and just impossible to be around. There’s no talking to them. They’re just a pain in the ass, and you can’t get any work done.

I remember going home every single night and complaining about this particular coworker. It felt like every single thing I did was met with misunderstanding, miscommunication, stupidity, negativity, passive aggression, and any number of her-faults.

There was the time that I got in trouble with my boss because I couldn’t get this coworker to return a key on time. There was the time that I had to issue twelve refunds to customers because I couldn’t get this person to show up on time. And there were all the times that I tried to distractedly get my desk work done while trying my best to listen empathetically to her complaints about work and life because I thought listening to her crap was the way to communicate heartfeltly.

Basically, she was a pain in the ass. And it seemed she was determined (whether consciously or unconsciously) to block my and others’ productivity at every single freaking turn. 

Every time she questioned me or passive aggressively asserted her (to my mind, false and ridiculous) knowledge over mine, I would get all bristled like, “I’m a freaking manager. I know how to write. I have this and that degree. I blah blah blah. I’m a professional, damnit!”

I felt this need to react with declarations of my own skill set and prowess and power. I felt the need to passive aggressively react to her passive aggressiveness.

Which made me feel like a fake. And inadequate. And unappreciated. 

Which made me react. Which made me want to overcompensate in ways that weren’t really true to myself or my professionalism.

And which just generally made me look like an ass, too. 

You got someone like that in your life?

I think most of us do.

We want to feel significant, like we’re actually good at our jobs and are recognized for our epicness. But we’re too busy being undervalued and frustrated by this obnoxious coworker who’s putting us down and trying to claw her way over our head, badly.

Which means we get caught up in drama, people start dragging their feet, we’re frustrated, we don’t get as much work done, we can’t stop complaining, or fighting, or crying, and work just sucks. 

And the biggest problem is that we struggle to communicate – both talk to and be heard by – this difficult person. No matter how empathetic, professional, lighthearted, or humorous we try to be, no approach seems to work and we fall apart at the end of every day.

The number one way to change this dynamic, the only way to fix this once and for all, the I’ve-tried-it-and-so-have-so-many-others-and-it-works-every-time trick is this.

Be genuinely you. 

Which probably sounds a little woo-woo, but go with me on this for a second.

Picture yourself in the morning when you first wake up and are all relaxed with your cup of coffee and a good book. Or picture yourself in the evening before bed, clicking away on a computer or scribbling in a journal. Imagine what it feels like when you’re completely relaxed, doing what you want to be doing and really enjoying being yourself.

In these situations, you actively choose to be yourself. You don’t react to anything in particular but instead are free to choose whatever activity makes you happy and whatever makes you feel most like yourself.

Now as a contrast, picture yourself in a situation with your difficult coworker. Imagine what it’s like to be misunderstood by her yet again, and imagine yourself about to respond. Or if you’re more the kind to let them walk all over you and not say anything, just imagine how you feel in that exact moment.

In these situations, you react. Whether you actually respond – positively or negatively – or simply say nothing, you react as soon as that person’s utter negativity and unprofessionalism affect your mood. You’re affected by the other person or people, and you’re more than likely feeling stuck, frustrated, and fearful yet again. Definitely not yourself.

It’s worth noting that you have every right to react, and you’re not wrong to feel the way you do. This is not a blog post about learning how to stop reacting to those around you and just meditate in your own head to pretend you’re happy. This is a blog post about actually being happy and really improving your relationships and the way you communicate with that pain-the-hole coworker.

Now, question. 

Do you feel like yourself in both of those situations? Or is there a difference between your voluntarily-and-actively-being-you situation and your I’m-stuck-here-at-work, I-have-to-do-this and my-coworker-is-freaking obnoxious situation?

I can’t hear your response, but I’m going to go ahead and bet on the answer being yes. 

Now here’s the reality. You can’t change your coworker or any other person that is driving you crazy. You can’t make them hear you and understand if they’re not open to it. And you can’t change your situations sometimes. That sucks.
But here’s another reality. You absolutely can change yourself. Let me reiterate that I’m not advocating you pretend to be happy when you’re not. I’m not advocating that you ignore your coworker and just learn to be happy despite her ridiculousness.

I am, however, advocating that you can be yourself, live your purpose, feel amazing, and that coworker won’t bother you any more.

You can be yourself, you can take care of yourself, and you can move beyond feeling stuck and empoweredfrustrated to feeling , heard, and powerful. And that’s pretty epic. 
Around the inspiring side of the Internet world, if you ever hang out there, which I know you do because I can see all those inspiring quotes and pictures you’ve pinned on Pinterest, we’ve started to interpret the reality that you can’t change others but you can change yourself to basically be a guilt-trip for not doing more work on yourself and a cop-out for persisting in our old habits that have continued the pattern of frustrating situations that we find ourselves in.

So please don’t continue to buy into that false reality. Don’t take my advice to be genuinely yourself to mean that you don’t have any work to do or that you should just put up with you freaking annoying coworker.

Instead, take it as an invitation to change.

You don’t have to change yourself, but you do have to become more like you, a more epic you. 

Bust through your own personal and professional frustrations and fears. Define your purpose and your skillset and you’ll be able to share your knowledge generously, without a strong need for significance or a lack of confidence. You will be able to communicate from a really empowered and excited place. You’ll feel genuinely like yourself and won’t feel the need for validation or recognition from the obnoxious people who can’t see your value.

Be professional in your interactions with them. Share your skills and know-how and really listen to theirs. Chances are they’re really good at something, too, and are feeling threatened (just as you used to feel!) by your authority and knowledge.

Share your skills with professionalism and authority. Own them. Love them. Share them. Be professional without pushing your dominance falsely over them out of a lack of self-confidence and a need for significance.

Communicate with them. Which really means listen. Try to hear what they’re really saying instead of reacting to what you think you hear. And remember that they’re probably reacting to what they think they hear you saying as well.

Recognize that you can only control you, and get to work. 

You’ve got to feel as yourself as humanly possible.

Find your purpose, bust through your frustrations, and you’ll start doing everything, including working and communicating in work, from a place of purpose and love. 

Work on giving everyone yourself and not what other people expect of you.

It’s not easy work, but it is simple. It’s a simple concept, and when you start acting genuinely like yourself, everything will change. Trust me.
Every time you go to do or say something in work, ask yourself, “Am I reacting? Or am I acting as myself?”

And if you still can’t connect with that coworker, forget them. You’ll be so in love with yourself and your life and so satisfied, you won’t need them anyway. 


Sarah Elizabeth Lahoud

Writing + media coach for creatives + entrepreneurs

Also a future Disney villain

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