Expert Tips on Dealing with Difficult People at Work

Dealing with difficult people at work

Clients, customers, coworkers, interns, students, bosses. Depending on your industry, you’ll come across all types of people. It goes without saying that we’re not going to click with every single person we meet. However, it’s never easy dealing with difficult people at work.

We’ve all experienced it. There’s someone who is perpetually hostile, slows down or complicates tasks, has distracting habits, or behaves as though they’re above us. It’s irritating and can end up interfering with the quality of our work.

So, what do we do when it’s apparent that we cannot avoid interacting with people that we don’t jibe with? Ultimately, we have be adults and professionals, and make it work.

Here are seven expert tips for dealing with difficult people at work – without tearing your hair out.

1. Look Inward

Okay, this is awkward, but it must be said first. Is it possible that at least part of the problem lies with you? Maybe you have a coworker or boss that is always correcting you. Are they right? Is it company policy to do things the way they’re attempting to enforce? If someone calls you out for being two minutes late, take a moment and consider if being a little late is a habit of yours.

It’s still annoying to be nitpicked at, but it may help to accept partial responsibility, especially if you have a tendency to respond in a less-than-friendly manner. You’re only feeding the beast, not attempting to move forward and be your best.

2. Don’t Take Things Personally

Let’s assume – as is often the case – that you didn’t really do anything to warrant the attitudes you’re dealing with. Now you’re free to stop taking it personally. What does this mean? It means that their behavior has much less to do with you than you thought, if at all. Therefore, we don’t get angry and wounded, feeling vilified or judged.

People who work in hospitality and food service know this well. There will always be a nightmare customer who is not satisfied with anything. Over time, these service workers learn to handle this very calmly, and can let it go by the end of the shift. We might say that they “toughened up”, but in reality, they just got wise.

3. Make A Record Of It, If Necessary

As we discuss this, it’s critical that we’re proactive in resolving negative interactions that affect our performance, or even worse, get abusive. In such cases, it’s important we make a record of this. If you must interact with this person, encourage exchanges via email or text that can serve as documentation. People are less likely to act up when they know you’ll have proof.

Of course, if there is any type of name-calling, sexual harassment, or threats, take it directly to HR or your superior. Do not even bother attempting to work through your issues with this person. Let your employer handle it and make your safety and sanity your top priority.

4. Avoid Gossip

When we really don’t like someone, we may be tempted to talk to others we interact with at work about it. This happens even more frequently when we see they irritate other people, too. While it may feel good to have someone else to vent to on the job, do not do this.

In the first place, it’s just mean. That person may have some annoying behaviors, but negative gossip is much more harmful than sending too many pointless emails or bringing a smelly lunch into the break room. Besides, teaming up to complain about someone absolutely does not advance your career. It doesn’t serve any of your job-related goals and is therefore a waste of your time.

Finally, you have to consider your overall reputation. This is important when going for promotions or taking a reference on the road with you. The Office Gossip is hardly what you want people to think of when you come to mind. Gossip is a no-no when dealing with difficult people at work.

5. Disentangle Your Emotions

Let’s say you have no choice but to routinely interact with someone you don’t like. To survive this (happily, even), take your emotions out of the equation. Do this by telling yourself that it’s self-care. You want to save up your energy and your thoughts for things that benefit you.

Also, depending on the situation, it might be motivating to deny them the satisfaction of getting under your skin. As they say, misery loves company. If you do not react to their slights, they have no ammunition to continue.

It’s a choice that can be very difficult to make. None of us want to be seen as someone who lets others run roughshod over them. But actively defending yourself is for other situations, which we’ll get to in a minute. For now, just think of it as taking the wind out of their sails. It’s just as gratifying as getting that heated retort in, isn’t it?

6. Get To Know Them

In times of trouble and tragedy, we’ll often see people comment, “You never know what someone is going through.” While such a sentiment has become pretty glib, there’s plenty of truth to it. That’s why it may help to get to know more about a person who rubs you the wrong way.

For instance, you may learn that this person recently went through a rough divorce. That easily explains a short fuse. Perhaps someone else at work gives them a roughtime, and they deal with their bad feelings by taking it out on others.

Or just maybe, they come from a different culture. That habit they have that you find annoying is commonplace there. You’ll never know if you don’t attempt to find out.

This approach is simple once you take a closer look at yourself (prejudices, triggers, and all) and successfully stop taking things personally. Maybe you guys even have a lot in common and seeing your not-so-great qualities reflected back at you was irritating.

So be nice, engage with them in a positive way! The worst that can happen is that you confirm that they’re just an awful person, in which case you were right to dislike them.

And who doesn’t like being right?

7. Confront At The Right Time, In The Right Way

Now we have to direct our attention toward those of us who never speak up, have problems defending ourselves, and are therefore picked on by jerks who sense that we’re “weak”. In addition, we have some advice for those who are more than ready to speak up but are worried it may get out of hand.

First, if this difficult person is a client or customer, it’s best to pass matters off to our higher-ups. We don’t want to risk angering someone who benefits the business, even though our “confrontation” is always to be carried out in as mature a fashion as possible.

The key here is timeliness when dealing with difficult people at work. Address it the same day as the transgression occurs, either as it happens or as soon as you can speak to that person with more privacy. Try something to the effect of, “I do not appreciate your tone, it’s unprofessional,” or, “Please do not talk to me that way, it’s degrading”. Stay firm here. Do not get tangled up in an argument. Just make your point and move on.

If they do it again in the future, remind them. They have to come to understand that you’re not going to let them get away with it. When they see that 1) you’re not angry, just displeased, 2) not afraid to call them out on it, and 3) serious about getting them to stop, you won’t be a target of choice.  

The Dos and Don’ts of Dealing with Jerks at Work

We’ve covered quite a bit here, but it may not apply to every scenario. Or, maybe your head is swimming with all kinds of different ideas about how to handle this. Use these dos and don’ts as a quick rundown, or a sort of cheat sheet that can help you remember what to do.


  • Take threats and harassment seriously. Reach out to supervisors and offer evidence.
  • Make sure you’re not playing a major role in the situation. If you think you might have misunderstood someone’s intentions, ask them to clarify.
  • Assert yourself as soon as you can. Don’t let it build up and pop off at a more inopportune time.


  • Automatically assume it’s all about you. This applies one of two ways. You don’t have to assume you deserve to be mistreated, and you don’t have to take it personally.
  • Suffer in silence. If there’s absolutely any way to resolve the issue, do it.
  • Behave the way they do. If someone is being petty or abusive, giving it right back makes you just as culpable should anyone get called onto the carpet for it.

From people who are noisy eaters, to colleagues who take credit for our work, we’re always going to have to deal with someone we dislike. Learning how to diffuse tension usually takes nothing more than a little more knowledge about where they’re coming from, and a willingness on your part to truly be done with the drama. 

What’s your tip for dealing with difficult people at work? Let me know in the comments below….

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