When you are caught in a difficult relationship with someone at work, it can be very tempting to see them in a very unkind light – seeing them as deliberately undermining your position, being overly negative or resistant to change.

Although staying with the unkind perspective is sometimes accurate and somewhat satisfying, ultimately putting a negative label on the other person is not only often inaccurate, it is disempowering – giving us nothing we can do to improve the situation. Seeing someone at work as difficult will also affect your demeanour when dealing with them, further affecting your interactions with them.

Although there is no doubt that some people are inherently difficult, my experience in mediating conflicts for over 30 years has been that, for the vast majority, there are much kinder ways to view the individuals. If you can find a kinder perspective, if one is there, you will be not only feel less offended and frustrated, you will also be in a much better position to respond. Consider if any of the following perspectives are a good fit for you.

  1. Have you misread the situation? You can double-check your perspective by asking yourself or a trusted confidante if there is a kinder way to view the situation. Give some thought to what the intention of the ‘difficult’ person was. If you can find a less-sinister intention behind their behaviour, this will help you to be less affected. Remember, that when unsure about their intention, try to assume the best. Most of the time you will be right. Unless you are working with a sociopath.

    For example, someone who appears to be undermining you to others, may simply be trying to access emotional support. Someone who appears to be bossing you around may simply be under pressure, trying to get something done and is not aware of how they are coming across.

    Some people find themselves getting quite defensive when given constructive feedback by their boss. To these people I compassionately say, ‘Get over it!’ Feedback, even that given poorly, is still an opportunity to become better at what we do. It is more helpful to look for the gem that is there in the feedback. Another kinder perspective could be that it is simply our supervisor doing their job, addressing problems as they arise. Here I am not excusing ongoing disrespectful communication.

  2. Are they simply a different person to you? Simply accepting that some people are wired differently to you, have different ways of operating, and different ways of communicating can be very liberating. This can help you to put your energy less into being offended and more into adjustments that you can make to fit in better with them.

    Of course, it is great when they can appreciate that you are a different person to them as well and are also willing to make adjustments. For example, some people who are very direct appreciate when others are direct with them. Others who are less direct, however, can find such directness quite intimidating, and appreciate a softer approach.

    Although some people might say, ‘This is just the way I am. I shouldn’t have to change for anyone’, this is not how things work when you want to have good relationships. We all have to make the effort to fit in better with those around us, especially with those who are very different to us.

  3. Are they under a lot of pressure at home or work? Although this is no excuse for poor behaviour, it certainly can be an explanation. Yes, I know we are all under pressure at different times and most of us don’t let our personal challenges affect the way we relate to others, but some of us do. When we are unhappy at home, we become unhappy at work.

    While many of us just become miserable or sick, sometimes the stress can come out through our behaviour. We take short-cuts with the way we speak to people. We become more sensitive, reacting more strongly to stressors than we would normally. Here it can be more helpful to ask if they are OK and provide support if they disclose challenges to you. It is also fine to alert them to how they have been coming across. But do reassure them that you know that this is not their intention, before exploring solutions for the future.

  4. Are you contributing? Can you find something (anything) where you may have contributed to the difficulties? Have you misread the situation, reacted defensively, not let the other person know the best way to work in with you? Remember that it is OK to be human – we are all someone else’s difficult person at times. In fact, it is a good thing when you can acknowledge your own personal flaws, as the biggest personal flaw you can have is to pretend you are perfect and the problem is always with others.

    By taking personal responsibility for our contribution, this helps us to be less offended and gives us something to work on. Even if you judge your contribution as only 5%, this at least gives you something you can change. If you change your part, there is no guarantee that others will change. But I can certainly guarantee more of the same if no-one changes. Ask yourself, ‘What behaviours from me would this other person see as helpful right now?’

Often the first step to changing the dynamics in a difficult relationship has to begin with the part of the relationship in your control – your own behaviour. If you can find a kinder perspective, you will be in a much better position to do your part to help.

Yes, it would be nice if the other person found a kinder way to view you, made adjustments to fit in better, cut you some slack, and looked at their own behaviour.

But someone has to be the adult here. It may as well be you.