Six ways to have better relationships at work – and how to deal with that one ‘difficult’ colleague

Joan Kingsley, organisational psychotherapist and co-author of The Fear-Free Organization, shares six ways to improve workplace relationships and deal with conflict

Sometimes in the work environment it’s inevitable that you clash with other staff, or find working with them difficult. We may become friends with some colleagues, but relationships with others can deteriorate, particularly when you’re working under high pressure. If so, these six pieces of advice and ways of looking at your situation can help.

1 Develop self-awareness

This is an integral part of emotional intelligence. Once you understand yourself completely, you will have an easier understanding of others, which may lead to the realisation that it is in fact you that is causing the problem.

Sometimes your own experiences can affect your opinions. Our brain is wired to give more weight to negative information, which means that past bad experiences may influence judgements about relationships. For example, if somebody called John has treated you badly in the past, it can create an unintentional and unconscious bias towards people called John; it is the brain’s way of defending itself.

Once you are aware of what is creating these negative associations, you’ll be able to control your emotional responses more effectively. Try to stay aware of your emotions to prevent any anger from boiling over and causing more problems, while also being selective about what is worth expending emotional energy on.

2 Get to know the other person

When you are able to empathise with the person in question it will help you see things from their point of view, enabling a much better working relationship to develop. With this in mind it is important to listen to the other person and be respectful. Focusing on listening rather than talking will encourage them to communicate more openly.

Find areas of common interest, and steer conversation to areas outside of work. Try to use humour where possible to lighten the mood.

It’s a good idea to try to ascertain if the other person is being troubled by something in particular, though be prepared to accept that they may not wish to discuss it. Remember that everybody has ‘off’ days.

3 Be tolerant of different approaches. ‘Different’ does not equate to ‘difficult’

Try to catch yourself becoming defensive when someone challenges your ideas. It is a natural reaction when you believe you are under attack but in defending your ideas, you may be missing out on a quicker, better way of doing things.

Avoid making assumptions about what the other person is thinking or feeling, or why they’re behaving in a certain manner. Your brain can lead you to do so instinctively but you need to remember that everybody is different. Once these assumptions are removed you will learn a great deal more about the person – for instance, what triggers certain emotional responses in them.

4 Don’t tolerate aggression. Confront bullies calmly, clearly and safely

If you’re in a management position, be very clear that there is zero tolerance when it comes to aggression and bullying. Should you have to approach somebody regarding their behaviour, be assertive but do not be drawn into returning their aggression.

Instead, confront bullying behaviour calmly, clearly and safely. Stick to the facts and do not get sucked into any emotional altercations. Furthermore, be prepared to walk away. There may come a point where no good can come of continuing the discussion.

5 Focus on solutions: become a ‘can-do’ person and don’t dwell on the past

Try to stay focused on what you can do to improve the situation, as opposed to dwelling on how bad it is at the time, or what has already happened and can’t be changed.

Instead, learn from the experience and use it to improve similar situations in the future. Become a ‘can do’ person, as this will help to resolve any situation as quickly as possible.

6 As a last resort, seek drastic solutions if you need to

If you feel it has become necessary to completely avoid difficult people, this is OK providing you can all still perform your roles properly at work. Keep the bonds strong with people you do get on with, particularly with superiors.

Keep clear, detailed records of every instance you feel the other person has been inappropriate and aggressive (time, date, duration, etc). Make sure the proper, formal procedures have been adhered to, and raise a grievance or complaint with the appropriate people.

Lastly, for the particularly severe cases, it might be necessary to consider quitting your job.

The key to working with people you don’t get on with, or find difficult, is to develop self-awareness, learn what makes the other person tick, embrace difference, have a tolerant attitude with strong boundaries about aggressive behaviour, develop a ‘can-do’ solution-focused attitude, and finally accept that there are some people you’re just never going to like. Bearing this in mind could make your life at work much, much easier.

The Fear-Free Organization book cover 100x117Joan Kingsley is an organisational psychotherapist. With Dr Paul Brown and Dr Sue Paterson, she is co-author of The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform your Business Culture, a pioneering new book that draws attention to the need for senior staff to appreciate how fear may be ruling their organisations and how this is affecting their teams, prohibiting the development of new ideas, creativity and unlimited potential

The Fear-Free Organization is available from £29.99 from all good booksellers and Kogan Page