Dealing with a difficult co-worker?

QUESTION:  I love my job, but have to work alongside a particularly difficult colleague who is constantly trying to sabotage my work. His behavior has started to affect my state of mind to the extent that I have started dreading going to work. Please advise?

AZIM: If you look back at your life, there is always someone at sometime who makes your life challenging or even downright difficult; whether it was a bully at school, or an over-zealous teacher or an intrusive neighbor.

Although life would definitely seem better without their company, their presence often serves a deeper purpose of awakening us or bringing us up to speed in life. In fact, they can be our greatest teachers.

Avoiding or ignoring these people might only further deteriorate the situation. Also, the longer you allow it to disturb you, the more upset you’ll become and all that repressed negative energy will only fester and embitter you. Hence it’s best to handle the situation while you still feel emotionally and spiritually in control of your life.

My foremost advice would be to change the context of how you view them. Instead of viewing them as a problem, view them as an opportunity for self-growth. This immediately shifts the focus of control of the situation from them to you. It puts you in charge of your life.

Going forward, here are some tips to deal with a difficult co-worker:

  1. Prepare your case – Very often we are too emotionally charged by the situation to view it in its right perspective. Hence take a few hours this weekend to carefully and calmly replay the situation in your mind and actually analyze the various components. You might be surprised at the insight you gather about yourself, about that person and about the situation itself. This will give you enough material to prepare your case. Doing this after meditation will be best as you will be in a calmer state of mind to assess the situation. Ask questions like: What is most troubling about the situation? What are you willing to do about it? What are your tools and choices? Can you deal with the worst-case scenario?
  2. Talk to them – One of the simplest ways to handle difficult people is to have a dialogue with them. Many people avoid this thinking the other will not participate or undermine them. But you will be surprised at how ignorant or unaware people are about how their behavior is affecting others. They might in fact thank you for your candor. So take the initiative in having the talk. You can start by asking them out for a coffee and then discussing the situation in an informal and relaxed environment. Stay calm and collected. Do not digress too much from the topic and remain focused on your objective. Avoid getting personal or attacking the person. If you find the discussion veering towards discord, close the dialogue for the time being and say, “I’ll come back to this once you feel calm enough to participate.” Do not give up after the first time. Sometimes they require a little time to assimilate and respond to the situation. Respect that and allow them that time.
  3. Do it in private – Don’t discuss the problem in front of other colleagues, your boss or clients, unless the situation calls for disclosure, like reporting harassment or illegal activity. It is best to discuss the situation in private to avoid embarrassment for either party. Also it will be easier to let go of the conflict once it has been solved.
  4. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – A conflict arises from difference of opinion and often the drama gets bigger than the opinions being fought for. Instead of attacking, if you change the approach to understanding, the other person is also encouraged to respond to the change in the relationship dynamic, and may suddenly not feel the need to oppose you. While it may be difficult for people to change completely, they can still evolve and improve from the present case scenario.
  5. Set boundaries – Set your personal boundaries of what is acceptable and not acceptable to you. These boundaries are set on the basis of what is just and fair in the situation. Once you feel morally convinced about your position, then exercise your right to tell them to stop or change their conduct. A good idea would be to practice your points and delivery to put forth your case simply and powerfully. Clearly express what you expect from them, without getting caught up in personal attacks or giving in to emotional dramas.
  6. Elicit support – If you are unable to resolve the situation on your own, and the person continues to persist in his behavior, the next step is to elicit the support of people around you. Check with your other colleagues to build a case against the person, by documenting specific incidents or behavior. It is possible they too have been at the receiving end of that person’s difficult behavior and might actually welcome someone taking up the issue. You can then build a strong case with evidence, helping your management to take the required action.
  7. Learn from the situation – Every person can teach you something and every situation can serve as a signpost. Hence, make the most of every life experience, pleasant or otherwise, to gain greater self-awareness. Use the situation to learn more about your own self and what has the power to unsettle you. And while we can agree to disagree with others, we can still gain insight about divergent views and contrary opinions. It may help to broaden your own perspective and view them in a new light. This will empower you to bring greater understanding and compassion in your ongoing interactions.

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