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10 steps to dealing with difficult people and bullies at work

Relationships with our co-workers and bosses can really affect our lives! When they go well our lives are enriched. When we have difficulty, it can really feel bad.

Do you feel bullied by someone at work? Is there someone you find difficult to work with?

Maybe your boss or co-worker is:
- unaware of your contributions
- uncaring about your feelings
- uses your services without thanks or acknowledgment
- insults you
- fails to appreciate you
- steals credit
- intimidates you
- changes plans without telling you
- doesn’t apologize
- reacts defensively to feedback

Do you bounce between wanting to fight this person or leave the job? Do you spend too much time seething, losing sleep over it, or feeling helpless?

Do you find yourself complaining to others and not to the one you’re upset with?

If you’ve had these experiences you know how hard it is to deal with difficult co-workers or bullies at work. But there is something you can do.

Principles for dealing with bullies and difficult people at work

1. Don’t try to win
You won’t win. Bullies and difficult people are often willing to fight dirty. You won’t want to descend to their level. Trying to win weakens your communication.

Instead of trying to win, try to communicate clearly, stay calm, and speak in a way that you can respect yourself. Judge the success of your communication by how clearly you express yourself, not by winning. Bullies will probably not admit their errors in front of you, but they may change their behavior.

Focus on maintaining your own calm, connection, confidence, and clarity.

2. Don’t try to change the bully.
Bullies are not usually concerned about their behavior. Remember “The Devil Wears Prada”? Did the Meryl Streep character look concerned about her effect on others?

People that complain are usually the bullies, not the bulliers. You can waste a lot of energy trying to change bullies. Don’t do it!

3. Confrontation is sometimes necessary
You may need to stick up for yourself. It’s not easy but if you prepare yourself ahead of time you can do it. Whether the confrontation is over shared credit, irritating coworker habits and approaches, or to keep a project on track, sometimes you need to hold a confrontation with a coworker or a boss.

The good news is that while confrontation is almost never your first choice, you can become better and more comfortable with necessary conflict.

4. Don’t judge the person.
When you judge you lose your own power. State your beliefs and experiences clearly with NO judgment of the other person.

Judging the person will make them want to fight you. If you don’t judge they don’t have an opening to fight.

5. Be clear about your own experiences
Use short, clear sentences. Use clear, unambiguous words. Keep it simple!

6. Talk mainly about yourself, your experiences, and your preferences
Avoid talking about the other person’s behavior. That will usually get you a defensive, attacking response.

Focus on your experiences – nobody can say you don’t feel the way you do. It’s harder to argue with someone when they are saying how they feel something.

Instead of saying: You are so unappreciative of my contributions.
Say: Like anybody, I want to be appreciated and acknowledged for what I do here. I don’t hear much appreciation from you.
Instead of saying: You insult me all the time.
Say: I like to hear productive, direct feedback about my work. Insulting or demeaning comments don’t help me and that’s not the kind of working environment I want.

Emphasize preferences over demands. Saying what you prefer is very powerful. Demanding something can leave you powerless, because what will you do if you don’t get your demands? Quit? If you aren’t ready to quit, don’t demand.

Instead of saying: I need you to acknowledge me for my contributions to the project.
Say: I prefer being acknowledged for my contributions.

7. Stay connected.
You may think that you should be cold to make a powerful statement. Or that connecting with the person means that you are condoning their behavior. Or maybe that if you connect you will be consumed by their negativity.

None of this is true.

You will be more powerful, have a bigger effect, and be better able to maintain your own positive energy if you feel connected to the person.

8. Be prepared to get a bad response.
Don’t anticipate a good response. Nobody likes feedback, and bullies are no exception. Be ready for anything! Before you confront the person, think ahead about the bad responses you might get, and prepare yourself for each one.

Are you going to collapse, get angry, or give up if you don’t get the response you want? Plan ahead to make a different response. The chapter on feedback in “Bring Yourself to Love” “has a worksheet to help you with this.

9. Don’t get caught in being too “nice.”
You may think you have to be the nice person – the pleaser, the peacemaker, the well-liked person. Bullies may not respond to this.

Ask yourself why you need to do this. Is it a habitual pattern? Did you have a volatile situation in your childhood so you felt you needed to be the calm, peaceful one? What are you trying to accomplish by being the nice one? You probably have good intentions, but this may not be the right situation for these intentions.

See if you can talk yourself out of being nice, and instead be clear, direct, and aware of yourself and the responses you are getting.

10. If something inside you gets in the way of following these suggestions, be kind to yourself.
Does all this seem like a tall order?

If you think you’ll have difficulty with these suggestions, here’s the best way to overcome them: Acknowledge and appreciate what might get in the way.

You developed habits and patterns for a reason – they helped you grow up in your family and culture.

Be kind to these parts of you. They have good intentions. The first four chapters of “Bring Yourself to Love” have stories, examples, and worksheets to help you do this.


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Mona Barbara Photo Mona Barbera
Dr. Mona is a psychologist, couples therapist, couples workshop leader, speaker, and the author of Bring Yourself to Love: How Couples Can Turn Disconnection into Intimacy.
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