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Monday, 27 July 2009

Dealing with difficult relationships at work

As a trainer, I often meet people who are anxious to find answers and solutions to various reationship issues they have at work. Many of us spend more hours at work than we do at home, or with friends and family - so it's no wonder that difficult relationships with colleagues and/or managers is cited as one of the biggest sources of stress. If you're having to deal with one or more difficult relationships at work, here's some of the advice I've given in the past:

Differences and conflict are to be expected
Remember that a certain number of differences and conflicts in the workplace are not only normal - they are to be expected, and can be a healthy sign of a diverse team. One of the key factors determining the success of working relationships is not whether there are any conflicts/differences, but how they are dealt with. Learning to respond positively to such situations will therefore almost certainly improve the quality of the overall relationship you have with your colleagues.

It's probably not personal
Remember that this is a work situation and it is quite likely that the person/s causing you difficulty would probably be doing the same to anyone in your position. So try not to personalise it too much. The perpetrator is normally focused on their own needs and not worrying about you as a person. You represent someone who is getting in the way of their own plans or desires in one way or another, so whilst viewing them as a person do not get pulled into their problem.

Don't try to change them
Difficult people will not change on their own and it is unlikely that you will be able to change them. Although this can be a depressing thought, take comfort in the fact that this at least makes their actions predictable. Just because they won’t change it does not mean that you cannot change the situation, or that careful planning can result in a successful outcome for you.

Try to see them as an ally
Being in conflict tends to make people see the “other side” as an enemy, and to look for their mistakes. You need to reverse this, by recognising and reinforcing the positive elements of each person’s position within the context of the team as a whole.

Seek to resolve, not to dissolve
Be clear with yourself and with them that you want to reach a win/win resolution. If you get into a head-on battle based on retaliation then you are both likely to have a miserable time. Formulate your strategy and decide what you want the outcome to be. Then concentrate on achieving this, and not on the negative issues or your bad feelings about the person.

Keep it in perspective
Keep the whole situation in perspective. This is just one situation in your life, and you are probably surrounded by many other positive things. Focus on the people who are important to you and seek solace with your colleagues and or clients at work that do support you.

Be prepared
Plan your approach to the situation. Once you are sure that your feelings are reasonable, think strategically about what you would like to change, and the best way of making it happen. Keep in mind your on-going relationship with the person, and don’t be afraid to compromise for the sake of a greater goal. Before you approach the person, practice what you’re going to say, and establish a positive, assertive frame of mind.

Clarify perceptions
Genuine progress can’t be made without understanding on all sides. You need to make sure that everyone fully understands each other’s standpoint. Be a good role model by listening with empathy and summarising the main points clearly and unemotionally. Use ‘we’ statements to describe areas of common ground and to encourage a more collaborative approach.

Focus on shared interests
Identify the things that are important to all concerned. Ask them “What is really important to you?” There are usually multiple interests, and some will be shared, which is the basis for resolution. Recognise that sustaining relationships requires meeting the needs of both. Postpone contentious demands that might damage the relationship until shared interests have been established.

Tackle the difficult stuff
The past can be an impenetrable barrier to the future. People cling on to protect pride and old beliefs. Letting go may be difficult and painful, but is essential to open the gate to the future. Demonstrate and encourage forgiveness (without necessarily offering approval), and try to articulate what usually goes unexpressed. Focus on the feelings of here and now, without picking open old wounds.

Listen to their responses
Whilst you can ensure that you handle a difficult situation assertively, it is not always going to be the case that the other person will immediately agree and show compliance. Even the best suggestions have potential problems and you may be questioned on your ideas. Be careful that you don’t to see their questioning as disagreement – or you may react aggressively (by arguing your point) or non-assertively (by quickly backing down). Try to handle their response reasonably, and assertively.

Suggest options for the future
Find ways of creatively identifying alternatives together. Listen and give proper consideration to all ideas without dismissing any offhand. Discuss ways of inventing new options to meet shared needs.

Agree mutual benefits
Before agreeing to action, make sure everyone feels that a win-win solution has been found (although compromises may need to be made along the way). Construct a detailed vision of the future. Don’t rush this stage.

Agree action
Develop quick wins; that is, things that can immediately be done to bring both sides closer to the shared goal. Ensure that you are both clear about any action that is required. Don’t rely on temporary quick fixes that are not sufficient to meet the longer-term solution. Encourage personal accountability by suggesting that you review the situation after a practical length of time – and make sure you both stick to it. If people don’t feel responsible, you haven’t reached a full resolution.

I hope these suggestions are useful. Of couse none of these will instantly transform the situation (no matter how desperately you'd love to wave a magic wand!) but they may well help to move things in the right direction. Repairing damaged relationships can take time, and always requires patience and a positive attitude. I'd love to hear from anyone who's successfully used any or all of the above ideas...


  1. An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

    Karim - Positive thinking

  2. Really sometime handling some relations at our work place becomes so difficult.... Your advice are really awesome and will help me a lot in my training session where I train household staff and housekeepers.....