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What tips do you have for working with difficult people?

Kristen Roth Atlassian Team Oct 03, 2019

A reported 85% of employees have dealt with conflict on some level in the workplace, and it's likely that much of this is due to conflicting work styles. This blog outlines four things we can do to get rid of the tension: 

  • Boost your emotional intelligence
  • Learn more about the person
  • Don't let the problem fester or avoid having that difficult conversation
  • Remember the power of positive feedback

We're curious to hear more from the Atlassian Community. What tips do you have for fostering more positive working relationships with coworkers that you have differences with? 

5 answers

I agree with all four, I would emphasize on number two.  Why are they here?  Are they "difficult" always, or only with certain topics?  What are they gaining from being "difficult"?  I put difficult in quotations because most times the individuals do not think of themselves as difficult, they see others as "difficult" to what they are trying to achieve.  By asking questions about a person, emphasizing on their actions, you can then better understand them and begin to better align yourselves.

Kristen Roth Atlassian Team Oct 03, 2019

I agree with you completely, @James Lewer . Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 

Like Kat likes this
2 votes

Fantastic tips! Just something I'd add is knowing the person on a slightly personal level can be helpful. 

Something that has worked for me is spending some time outside the office and not only talking about work-related things but getting to know them. Invite them for a casual lunch, drink or dinner. More often than not it gives you an insight into their personality and pushes you to empathize. 

This helps you understand that their actions aren't out of spite and it also gives them an insight on your personality. Simple questions like what do you do for fun? or How do you spend your weekends can make a world of a difference. 

Kristen Roth Atlassian Team Oct 10, 2019

LOVE this, Poorvi! It's so important to really get to know people whenever possible.

Like Poorvi Jhawar likes this

I have taught several "Collaborating through Conflict" sessions, and a certain amount of conflict is healthy for ideas, innovation, and breaking through the "it has always been done that way". 

However when it goes to far, it can cause a lot of issues. I have also taught sessions on "how to have difficult conversations" and "refining your emotional intelligence".

Watching for red flags (when people are acting differently than they normally do), always asking why (never assuming) to get the full picture, listen to understand not to just reply. 

It is also important to learn individual personality preferences, whether it be through MBTI, Insights Discovery, Everything DiSC or another psychometric tool, and doing team activities where individuals learn how to adapt and connect.

As well, 80% of communication is non-verbal, so if we only deal with someone via email, and they write a short or curt email, call them up to continue the conversation, walk to their office if you can. Be assertive and address conflict before it escalates - turning a blind eye or bottling things up just makes it worse.

I have dealt with "difficult people" over the years, and there is usually a reason why they are difficult, perhaps they are feeling undervalued, unappreciated, or just need to be heard. Try to determine the root cause. It takes work but it is worth it, if there are people on your team that are in conflict or can't work together, the whole team suffers.

A neutral party discussion or mediation can also help resolve difficulties informally, I have mediated sessions with colleagues, and often times there were assumptions made that were untrue, and when the individuals shared their side of the story, they were able to work through things and had greater success in resolving the issues.

I also feel that incivility occurs when individuals are under stress, this is a great paper that was done a few years ago called Civility Matters:

Kristen Roth Atlassian Team Oct 31, 2019

Amazing insights, @Jodi LeBlanc . Thank you for sharing! 

Thanks Kristen, it's such a great topic!

I would like to add, observe the persons interactions with other team members. Sometimes he/she is not difficult, you are.

Kristen Roth Atlassian Team Oct 10, 2019

We could all stand to practice more self awareness, @Reena Babu. Thanks for sharing! 

1 vote

Point 2 on @Kristen Roth  question is the most important one to me, although I would like to expand on it.

Listen, properly.

Don't be afraid of feedback, clamming up, reaction, provocation, retreating into a shell, whatever you get from trying to listen, your own reaction to hearing things, whether it works or not first time.


Be natural in the following conversation.  You're human too, you have some things in common.  You have a LOT more that is not, avoid that.

Then, listen.  You are very likely to find out why something is wrong and an easy way to fix it for both of you.

But, If you work with them, the worst case is that you've got someone who is doing bad things and is making the team dysfunctional.  Ask them why.  Listen to them.  Then you'll know why it's time for them to leave.

Kristen Roth Atlassian Team Oct 10, 2019

Yes! Listening is often an underestimated skill, and really not that tough to practice! My teammate, @Jamey Austin actually wrote a great piece about the importance of active listening!

Authentic listening is absolutely key, I completely agree. My boss used to say, we have two ears and one mouth for a reason, to listen twice as much as we speak :)

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