Karen Darrin

When someone you work with is difficult and annoys you, it’s tempting to avoid the person as much as possible. But this isn’t always feasible and often only makes the situation worse. You’re better off cultivating some empathy. How can you do that with a colleague who rubs you the wrong way?

Here are six tips on how to collaborate with a difficult coworker:

1. Reflect — For starters, keep in mind that your colleague isn’t getting under your skin on purpose. Depersonalize the situation. And look inward. Annie McKee, author of How to Be Happy at Work, states. “When someone is driving you crazy, it helps to ask yourself, “What’s causing me to react this way?” Your frustration “might not be about that person at all; it might be about you,” she says. Perhaps your colleague “reminds you of someone else you don’t like.” Having self-awareness strengthens your capacity for empathy, McKee adds.

Throughout this process, make sure your self-talk is genuine and based in reality. Thinking to yourself, “This guy’s an idiot and will never change,” isn’t useful, nor is thinking, “Everything will turn out fine, he’s great, there’s no problem.” Make sure that what you say to yourself about the situation is as accurate as possible.

2.  Stay calm — Next, “lean in to your emotional self-control and willpower,” McKee says. When your colleague shows up late, interrupts you, or is just being all-around obnoxious, you may feel a physiological reaction. “Recognize the clues that you’re getting triggered,” she says. “Maybe your breath quickens, or your palms start to sweat, or your temperature rises.” Giving in to these symptoms risks “amygdala hijack,” where you lose access to the rational, thinking part of your brain.

Instead, take a few deep breaths to “help you regulate your stress hormones, lower your heart rate, and make it less likely that you’ll engage in behavior that you won’t be proud of later,” McKee says. Keeping your “demeanor calm and open” puts you in a better frame of mind to conjure empathy for your colleague.

3. Be curious — Unearth your curiosity. Ask yourself: “What motivates this person? What excites and inspires him?” Go “beyond your own worldview” and reflect on “what may be in his cultural background, education, family situation, or day-to-day pressures that’s causing him to behave this way.” Remember: The goal here is to “understand this person’s perspective.” It doesn’t mean you have to adopt it, validate it, or agree with it. Just work on acknowledging it. As Steven Covey said, “Seek first to understand. Then, to be understood.”

4. Focus on your similarities — Try to get to know the person and deepen your understanding of their perspective.  Rather than focusing on your differences, look for the similarities. If you can’t think of any, focus on the work you need to collaborate on or even the organization. Since you both are employed there, you both want the organization to succeed, right?

5. Be kind — When dealing with someone you dislike, you often assume the worst, and that mindset shows up in your behavior. Try to short-circuit that reaction and do or say something that’s surprising and nice.  Compliment the person on an idea they raised in a meeting, or offer to help out with a project. It shouldn’t be forced, however. It has to be authentic.

This tip reminds me of a Steven Covey-inspired metaphor. Imagine this relationship is like a bank account. With this account, each interaction with this person is either a “deposit” or a “withdrawal.” “Making a deposit” in this relationship, strengthens your collaboration and trust.  “Making a withdrawal” can diminishing the collaboration and trust between you. Make small deposits with kind and authentic interactions. Over time, you will find a more acceptable bond with the difficult coworker. And, when you mess up with this person (and we all do), you will have enough of a “positive account balance” to stay in the black with your “withdrawal.”

6. Have a (difficult) conversation — If you still find this particular coworker challenging, you might have to have a conversation about how you work together. Approach it through the lens of empathy so the conversation won’t become charged. For instance, don’t say, “You take up too much air time.” Instead, say, “I’d love to figure out a way for us both to get our ideas out during the weekly team meeting.” Don’t lose sight of the fact that your colleague probably feels the same way about you. After all, if they trigger you, chances are you trigger them, too.

CALL TO ACTION:  Need help in how to collaborate with a difficult coworker? Let’s outline strategies together. Schedule a Free 30-min Consult or email me at karen@karendarrin.com.

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