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Emotional intelligence: 5 tips for working with difficult people
You can’t bring your best to work if others are bringing you down.
We all want to bring our best selves to work, but certain situations – or even people – can make that difficult. When someone constantly challenges your ideas, takes all the credit, or talks behind your back, it can feel like a personal attack. Even when someone works differently than you do – for example, they are introverted and you are not – it can feel hard to communicate and work effectively. In both scenarios, your productivity can suffer if interpersonal issues start to impact your work.
How can you use your emotional Intelligence to rise above the workplace drama and be effective in your role?
“Perhaps the first and most important thing is to recognize that your dislike of another person boils down to the feelings you have towards them,” says Drew Bird, founder of The EQ Development Group. “This is a result of what you know about them as well as your experiences with them at work. Looking at it in this cold, factual way is an important step. After all, they are just a bundle of characteristics and behaviors, just like you.”
[ How does your EQ stack up? Read also: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]
5 types of personalities
If you are struggling with interpersonal issues at work, consider, for example, the following office personalities – and how you work with them.
The person who’s out to get you:
“We all too often react to a story we make up about what someone ‘has done to us,’” says Bob Kantor, founder, Kantor Consulting Group. “However, people do things for many different reasons, often having nothing to do with us. We read meaning into their actions or words because of our own issues and background. We then react to that story we create – not to what actually happened.
“I find that the simplest approach to dealing with difficult people and situations is to not take anything personally,” Kantor continues. “Be curious about what is causing someone to say or act the way they are behaving. Seek to truly understand their point of view and their underlying thought process. Use active listening to demonstrate you have heard and understood them.”
“Gossips and busybodies love to talk about others behind their backs, put them down, and spread harmful rumors,” says Judith Orloff MD, author of Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People, and member of the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty. “They also delight in drawing others into their toxic conversations. Start by letting go of your need to be liked, please everyone, or control what they say. Then be direct. Say: ‘Your comments are hurtful. How would you like people talking about you like that?’
“You can also simply change the subject and refuse to participate,” she suggests. “Don’t share intimate information with gossipmongers. And finally, don’t take gossip personally. Realize that gossips aren’t happy or secure. Do what you can to rise to a higher place, and ignore them.”
“The IT world is full of introverts, and many people move into management because they are extroverts,” notes David Egts, self-identifying introvert and chief technologist, North America public sector, Red Hat. “Extroverts understanding how introverts think (and vice versa) is essential to bring out the best in everyone. I highly recommend the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and its accompanying TED Talk.”
“Egomaniacs have an exaggerated sense of entitlement and self-importance, crave attention, and require constant praise,” Orloff says. “Although they can sometimes be quite charming, they nevertheless know how to belittle you and make you serve them. Narcissistic people value control and power, and they lack empathy. Don’t allow your self-worth to hinge on them. Instead, seek out supportive coworkers and colleagues.
“And finally, to get their cooperation, frame your request in ways they can hear, such as showing them how your request will benefit them,” she advises.
The highly opinionated:
“Sometimes the people you don’t like give you feedback. Even if the feedback is negative, the person providing the feedback is giving it because they care, or he or she wouldn’t have said anything in the first place,” Egts points out. “Also, remember that you can’t control the other person – the only thing you can do is control your reaction to the feedback. The book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well doesn’t spend any time discussing how to give feedback but rather how to receive it (positive and negative) in a constructive way.”
How to work with anyone: 5 tips
Of course, difficult co-workers and situations take many different forms. If none of these personas match up with the specific person who’s pushing your buttons at work, read on for tried-and-true advice for working with anyone.
1. Focus on the behavior, not the person
“Are they really difficult people? It’s a good practice to focus on the problem behavior rather than the person,” suggests Halelly Azulay, CEO of TalentGrow.
People may react or behave in a way that makes it difficult to communicate with them, trust them, or work with them to solve problems productively and efficiently. That doesn’t make those people bad or difficult, Azulay says.
“My advice is to reframe the problems as difficult conversations, not difficult people. You can’t change another person’s basic nature, but you can and should adapt and work on shifting your own and their behaviors, communication styles, and reactions to more positive and effective ones.”
2. Find your mindset sweet spot
The concept of apatheia, a state of being where you care appropriately about what is going on around you, can help you in difficult situations, says Bird.
“In emotional intelligence terms, we think of apatheia as an aspect of independence,” he says. “We don’t want to be so emotionally close to others that they can have too much of an impact (what we call enmeshment), nor do we want to be so far away from them that we become uncaring (dissociation).
If you find yourself caring way too much about what someone else said or did, even when the actual impact on you is minimal, you may be in an enmeshed state. But if you swing too far to the other side and become dissociated, it can appear as if you don’t care about other people, says Bird.
“When we can find the sweet spot between these two states, we are much better able to separate what happens ‘out there’ from impacting what happens in your head,” he says.
3. Try the power of a “positive no”
If you and someone on your team constantly butt heads on strategy, you might try the power of a “positive no” to find some common ground, suggests Kantor. This approach was created by William Ury several years ago when he published his book under the same name.
With this method, Kantor explains, you sandwich your “no” between two instances of “yes.” He shares this example:
If a business leader makes a request for a product feature or development timeline that is not reasonable, say yes to the values you hold in common that might conflict with their request:
Our firm has always made quality a top priority and underpromised while over-delivering to our customers.
Next, demonstrate how the request would likely compromise those shared values:
Given the scope of the enhancement and timeframe, we would not be able to thoroughly test it before releasing it to our clients.
Finally, say yes to an alternative that would partially address the request while being more in line with the stated shared values:
What if we did three releases, with the first one being a partial solution set in the timeframe you requested, while also advising our clients that the additional functions desired will be coming in release two and release three a couple of months later?
4. Pause and control your own emotions
When you are dealing with a co-worker or situation that challenges you, pause, breathe, and take notice of how it is affecting you. Do you want to scream? Run? Fight?
“In critical conversations, avoid triggering the fight-or-flight threat response by creating a sense of safety,” says Azulay. “Ensure that the conversation is based on constructive intentions – and communicate those openly.”
Doing this consistently takes a lot of practice – and emotional intelligence. “The key to not reacting emotionally in critical conversations is to learn to regulate our emotions,” Azulay notes. “Three ways from scientific research to regulate our emotions during critical conversations are labeling our emotions, reframing them, and becoming more mindful and present to the moment by shutting off the internal ‘narrator’ in our head.”
5. Get to know your enemy
If you can’t beat them, join them – in a personality assessment, that is. Taking a personality quiz with your co-workers can offer great insights into how people think and work, says Egts.
“I highly recommend that teams do personality profiles like Tilt,” he says. “It really helped me be mindful of how I show up on my best and worst days and how my teammates show up on their best and worst days. Tilt also tells you how to approach people who are different than you (or the same as you) for optimal results.”
[ Do you make thoughtful decisions? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader's guide. ]