By Hannah Kaiser

The workplace provides us with a setting for productivity, creativity, and socialization. The primary purpose of going to work may not be to develop a rich network of interpersonal relationships, but that very thing happens naturally when we work closely with the same people over time. As we get to know our colleagues, the types of connections we form can radically change how we experience our work. Some coworkers may make us happier just by being there to greet us at the start of our days. Others may challenge us intellectually to grow in our careers and in our personal lives. 

Other coworkers may challenge us to keep our tempers under control. 

Workplaces are no different from any other social setting in that, sometimes, they introduce you to people who seem to make your life more difficult. These difficult people may constantly disagree with you on the right way to do things or disagree with you about everything. They may say one thing and then do another. They may like to dismiss you. In more extreme cases, they may be able to throw you simply by walking into the same room.

Often, these counterproductive relationships form because the difficult person is very different from us. When experiences and perspectives clash, conflict is more likely to occur. This conflict can be toxic, but, under the right circumstances, differences can be used to forge something greater than the sum of its parts. 

Difficult Can Be Good

Diversity in experience (and personality) can form powerful partnerships, sometimes more powerful than partnerships between people who get along well. Working with a friend may be more fun, but it doesn’t as often lead to something unique. 

Disagreements with a friend may fizzle out before you figure out what’s most interesting about a problem. On the other hand, when you are working with someone very unlike you and you are trying to come up with the best way to do things, you may have an easier time getting to the best possible solution. Even if you and a difficult coworker may never get together to grab a drink after work, the two of you have the capacity to combine distinct perspectives that lead to outcomes that are richer for it.  

The trick is learning how to keep conflict civil and useful. Here are some best practices to follow when experiencing conflict: 

  1. Keep Disagreements Professional. Task conflict (disagreements on the best way to get something done) can be useful. Relationship conflict (personal disagreements often unrelated to work) is almost never useful. When handling conflict with a colleague, be sure you are challenging their work-related ideas, not them as people. If you want to tell them you think their idea is bad, always connect your reasoning back to the task at hand.
  2. Don’t Let Debates Become Battles. Remind yourself that you and your coworker are trying to learn from each other. The benefits of debate are lost when arguments get too heated or become toxic. If someone is beginning to raise their voice or resorting to personal attacks, it’s a great idea to take a break to cool down. And, if arguments are just not resolving themselves, think about getting a mediator involved.
  3. Ask Lots of Questions. The reason you are working to keep conflict productive is to combine your set of skills with someone who possesses a disparate set of skills. To yield value in combining diverse perspectives, you have to actively try to understand their perspective. When an idea or argument doesn’t make sense to you, keep trying to understand. Ask your coworker to present their case fully, and treat their arguments charitably.
  4. Avoid Excessive Venting. It can feel good to vent about a frustrating coworker to a coworker you like. And, although it can help you get closer to the coworker you are venting to, it can ostracize you from the coworker you are venting about. Calling out truly bad behavior can be a useful deterrent in some cases by giving a difficult person a chance to see how others are viewing them. But constant venting can also create a narrative about a person that causes you to interpret their future behavior more harshly, harming your chances of ever having a productive partnership with them.
  5. Always Stay Open. Try to assume the best in a coworker’s difficult behavior. If they do something to provoke a negative reaction in you, acknowledge that reaction, and then try to think about what you may be missing. Why may they be acting that way? What is different in these situations compared to situations where that coworker is more cooperative and collaborative?
  6. Keep Goals in Sight. When a partnership is riddled with disagreements, it’s easy to lose sight of the reason for the disagreement for the sake of the satisfaction of winning a debate. When you find yourself getting caught up in a dispute, stop to reframe your thinking. How is the outcome of the debate connected to the larger goal? Would your time and your colleague’s time be better spent elsewhere?

Mitigating Dysfunction 

There are people who you simply cannot reach (and, who cannot reach you). They may be completely unwilling to listen, and you may be unable to see the value in their perspective. When there are no roads to a fruitful partnership, avoiding conflict altogether will help preserve a positive workplace environment. 

One strategy to deal with difficult behavior without spiraling into conflict is to engage in mindfulness. Research has demonstrated that mindfulness exercises can reduce ruminating on negative experiences, thereby mitigating harmful emotional responses. When dealing with frustrating behavior from a coworker, stopping to take a walking meditation or do a mind-wandering exercise can stop you from retaliating and escalating things. Here is an article on mindfulness, and some examples of mindfulness exercises.

Of course, if difficult behavior worsens into bullying or becomes otherwise harmful for either party, it might be time to get into contact with a supervisor or another mediator. Separating you and the agitator entirely is sometimes the best solution. 

If you find you could use support in any aspect of conflict resolution, team development, planning, transition, or change, we’d love to talk with you. We have helped many of our clients work through challenges and walk the path to greater personal and organizational success, we’d love to help you too. Contact us for a complimentary consultation at or call us at 970-279-3330.

Our mission is to give voice and action to an emerging future. As a partner in your success, we would love to come alongside you to help you find your voice, see your vision, and imagine what the right action could be for you, your team, and your organization.