Mention the problem of difficult people in the workplace, and various stories jostle in my mind. The coordinator who didn’t support a teacher when a parent verbally abused them; colleagues who bullied or undermined others; students who were so disruptive that their teacher resigned. I don’t know how many times over recent years I’ve imagined the horror of working for politicians who appear to delight in the chaos and distress they cause.
Workplaces are incredibly complex – like ponds with endlessly intersecting ripples. The reach of a difficult person can be vast, as they set off reactions in other people. Civility is a fragile social contract dependent on mutual goodwill. Being around someone prepared to break that contract can sap our energy and wear us down, making us dread each encounter and anxious about going to work. It can overshadow the good things in our lives, and in the long term affect our relationships and health.
Most of us have types of people or behaviours that trigger us.
There’s a line in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that I often think of: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb in his skin and walk around in it. How does the other person see the world, their workplaces and colleagues? What has shaped their lives?
It’s important to look at ourselves, too. Most of us have types of people or behaviours that trigger us. I’ll put my hand up here. I have trouble with bossy advice-giving extroverts who others might see simply as decisive and friendly. I wonder whether my introversion and indecisiveness are equally difficult for them. Sometimes, people are just not a good fit for each other. Here’s where the social contract is worth remembering.
But, where there is a genuine problem, what should we do? Good advice is a world away from Taylor Swift’s: If you’re horrible to me, I’m going to write a song about it, and you won’t like it. That’s how I operate. Such public retribution might be appealing, but it’s not an option for most of us.
Instead, experts recommend calmly confronting difficult people – which can be hard, especially if by upbringing or personality you prefer not to make waves. Make sure you use ‘I’ statements, focusing on your experience rather than criticising them, as this can lead to defensiveness and a refusal to accept any responsibility. For instance, “I feel upset when you talk to me like that” is more effective than “You’re always bullying me”. The statement moves your response from feeling to thinking, from heart to head. Remaining in control in a situation that is or might become emotionally charged might take practice for many of us, but it will become easier.
Workplaces can be hotbeds of gossip and factions, but a positive work environment is better for everyone, so stay neutral at work and blow off steam with friends or family. If possible, avoid spending time with a toxic person.
We often forget to look after ourselves after an incident.
Aggression in students is equally challenging, but the same principles apply: stay calm (take deep slow breaths if you can); look for the subtext in their behaviour; avoid judgment; don’t return their anger or engage with their argument; ask what the real problem is.
It’s important to stay safe. Psychologists recommend trusting your instincts. Look for an exit strategy, if necessary; keep extra space between you and the student; and don’t touch them, as this might be misinterpreted. Offering some hope – for instance, “I’m going to try to help you” – can also defuse some situations. Unfortunately, there is no single, universal approach guaranteed to work.
We often forget to look after ourselves after an incident. Going for a run or walking the dog or – perhaps most importantly – talking the situation over with someone you trust can help manage stress.
If the situation doesn’t improve or aggressive confrontations recur, it’s time to talk with someone senior in your workplace. In the end, though, if all these measures fail, you might decide to change workplaces – or like Taylor Swift, write that song.