• Jenny Bell

How To Deal with Difficult People at Work

#workplace #working #mindfulliving #toxicpeople


I no longer work outside of the home but I did from the age of 16 until last year. In Buddhism, one of the arms of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right Livelihood. To me, this means finding a place where you can do good. We cannot all work for ethical companies or go out and become meditation teachers but wherever you do work, you can do your best to be a positive force for good. One of the hardest parts about any job is working with difficult people. These people may be difficult for you for a number of reasons and it doesn't even mean you don't like them or that they are "toxic" people, they are just difficult for you to work with.

There is a woman I once worked with that the students referred to as Professor Umbridge behind her back. Not a Harry Potter fan? It's not a compliment, the character appears sugary sweet but is manipulative. Well anyway, this counselor had a lot of power and many important ears listening to her. I am not quite Professor Trelawney but I am a hippie at heart. I used to teach stress management to kids which happened to include a guided meditation. Well, I became quite unpopular with this woman quickly. She would talk about me to anyone that would listen. She would skew things students said to her about me. One time a student told her that she wasn't going to take home ec. because we would be doing some of those same things in the elective I taught. Well this counselor went to the current teacher who taught this course and told her I believed her class to be worthless and that no one should take it. This other teacher would talk badly about me to her students (really professional, I know). I nicely confronted the teacher talking about me to her students and cleared matters but she still believed the counselor over me. At first, I was angry and hurt. I was also shocked that someone could be so immature and rude. But then I remembered the things this counselor say to kids. She asked one of my students who was not a legal citizen if he applied to universities in Mexico because “he belongs there.” Just an FYI he received a full academic scholarship to Berkeley.

I am not complaining here. We all have difficult people in our work places. The story above is not unique in anyway and most of the time the way we deal with other people's’ negativity isn’t unique either. Many of us take on the negativity and make it our own in some way. We become victims or we become self-righteous and angry or we internalize and make ourselves physically sick or we take the anger or frustration out on others or we avoid the person and all the problems or we try to please the people who don’t like us and say sorry for things that we aren’t really sorry for. These are not healthy ways to deal with negativity. In fact, all of these coping mechanisms take on the negativity and make it our own in some way.

So how do we not take on the negativity? Don’t take anything personally. I mean really don’t take anything personally. This is extremely hard to do. It is so easy to take something someone says and hold onto it, especially the bad things. So and so said I am pretty--I wear it like a badge. So and so said I am mean I wear that like a scarlet letter.

Something happens at an early age to many of us and we believe we are innately bad without constant correction, self-scolding or listening to outside views. You are hard on yourself because you believe you have to be. Someone calls you stupid and you start to reflect. You sit and analyze what you might have done to warrant this. You may even start to believe it to be true. You may even find yourself making mistakes and believing it is because you are stupid.

A good friend and coworker once told a story. He told me how he had run into a former student. He had this student for an elective as well as a core class and it had been at least five years since he had seen him. My friend remembered liking the student and having a good relationship with him. The student approached him and told him how he never forgot the time he (the teacher) yelled at him about a mistake he made. The student explained how this stuck with him. My friend apologized and felt terrible. He told me ever since then he was extremely careful with the words and tone he used with students. He said that we can say 100 nice things to a kid but the 1 negative we say erases all of that and is the one thing that sticks. I bet you do your best to be patient and kind with your loved ones. Have you ever turned this around and been patient and kind with yourself? I have realized that a lot of successful people are extremely hard on themselves and a lot of us believe that if we aren’t this way we would not be successful.

If you are kind to yourself and stop the negative voice in your head then the outside compliments and criticisms from others do not affect you so strongly. A criticism, if it is work related and constructive, can be something you give some time and reflection to but not something you use as a weapon to beat yourself up with. There is a difference between reflection and dwelling. What I am saying is this. The most difficult person you work with is really yourself. Once you have a better relationship with yourself what the outside world says does not hurt you as much. When this is the case you can let things go and approach negativity rationally in the workplace.


When someone says something difficult or negative you can ask yourself the following:


  • Is this something I need to report to a superior?

  • Is this something I need to address?

  • Is there a point in responding or will this just feed the negativity?

  • Is there any truth or something I can learn from this?


After you reflect and do the appropriate action you can let the comment go, but before you get to the place where you can let others’ problems go you have to let go of your own. In many cases, it is the other person that has a problem with us and not the other way around. We don't have to let their problem become our problem. It is when we don't let the comments or annoying behaviors of our co-workers go that the workplace becomes toxic for us. We bring the problems home.

With my Professor Umbridge situation, I had to radically accept that she would not like me. I diffused rumors when I could and I kept notes and any rude emails from her in case I needed to take further action. I refused to her let opinion of me make a difference. I focused on the people who loved what I was doing and the students who enjoyed being in my class. When we give the negative coworker our focus, attention and energy we are the ones that suffer. It is important to consciously work on setting up boundaries so as not to give them any of our energy.

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