Difficult colleagues – or when communication styles clash

I don’t think anyone goes out of their way to be difficult, but it’s a fact that some people are naturally easier to get along with than others. We don’t all feel drawn to the same people though, so some of it can also be to do with how we relate to people as well and what our preferences are.

Sometimes a person may have a reputation for being difficult. Other times their style of communicating may just not work so well with certain people in the workplace.

Either way – sometimes conflict can arise at work and I’d like to look at some communication strategies for dealing with or diffusing these situations.

If someone has annoyed you – and let’s face it, from time to time people do – it’s always better to respond rather than react. Think about what your response will communicate to the other person. Take time if you need to – but don’t just fire off an angry or sarcastic email, or copy in more people to prove your point in front of an audience and make the other person think twice about annoying you in the future. Doing this kind of thing can reflect on you too, and not in a good way!

Obviously specific problems need specific solutions – these are just a few tips that focus on communication

What’s the best way to communicate?

Nowadays so much more of our communication is taking place online. Some of us love this. It’s been my preferred way of communicating for years, and I often keep in touch with some of my best friends in text chat or online meetings. That was the case even before the pandemic. I have a global network, and a lot of my friends spend a lot of their business and private lives online.

But some people have had to make a transition to more online working, and some people are finding this transition easier than others. Some people find it more uncomfortable, and this can affect their working relationships – because they really miss the face-to-face interactions or chats around the coffee machine.

What is really the problem?

Is it the person or the action?

Not everyone will like everyone, and you will naturally find some people easier to work with than others – because of how they interact, how they work, how much they communicate, how much they like small talk etc. Often there isn’t a right or a wrong way to do these things, but they can make it harder when people clash.

I remember a colleague that a number of other colleagues found difficult to work with. We got on just fine. The colleague was pretty direct and to the point. If they thought something was a bad idea, they would tell you – straight away. I liked that, and we developed a good working relationship.

So your “difficult colleague” might be someone else’s favourite person! Sometimes we’re just different and it helps to look at your own communication with the other person, to see whether there is anything that they respond better to, and whether you can communicate with them in a way that will get a better reaction.

If you know that someone is likely to annoy you, try not to dismiss their ideas automatically. I will always remember my boss telling me that one day one of my other colleagues might have a really good idea, but I’d miss it, because I immediately became dismissive whenever I saw her name. He was right.

Or is it what they are doing

It’s easier to pin down if the thing that you find difficult is what the person is doing. Are they leaving everything to the last minute, which impacts on your ability to do your job? Do they keep changing their mind, which makes it hard for people to know what they are supposed to be doing? Do they fail to pass on information, which means people don’t know what’s going on? Do they sing at their desk and distract everyone (yes I’ve had to deal with this!)? Do they spread gossip or rumours or try to cause arguments in the team by spreading false information?

These are specific behaviours that are easier to pinpoint and challenge because of their impact on others.

Is it the method of communication?

We all have preferences. How much small talk do you like before the meeting really gets going? Do you want to get to know someone or just get down to business?

Does highlighting problems mean that someone is negative, or that they just want to find solutions before the problems arise?

How much does it bother you if you don’t achieve all you set out to in a meeting, but you did get other things done?

Would you rather someone sends you an email or gives you a call? I much prefer email because I find it much more time-efficient, but some people hate this.

Some people don’t come across well in writing. Some misunderstandings can be avoided if you have a conversation.

Some people need time to process what you’re asking or telling them, so expecting an immediate response to a lot of new information will make it harder for them.

Choosing the way you communicate can really play a role in how well the communication will go. It’s sometimes good to think about this, rather than to keep doing what you’ve always done in the past.

What is their intention?

Is there a problem because you have conflicting priorities? Is this thing important to them? Do they have other time pressures or other concerns that you aren’t aware of, or that don’t affect you?

Maybe they don’t have an intention or realise how their behaviour is affecting other people around them.

Be careful with sentences like “s/he’s always trying to” – because you might be describing the result as you see it, and not what the other person is actually trying to do.

Is there a problem with the processes?

I’m not saying that you should use the company’s processes to criticise people all the time, but deciding how to do something, what steps are important, what order they should be in, and who should do them is a good way to manage expectations and help people to see what they need to be doing. Sometimes structure and a list of steps prevents misunderstandings and miscommunication.

Does the behaviour need to be challenged?

Sometimes there is no easy solution or different way of communicating that would make things better. Some behaviour is just not ok and it needs to be challenged by the person’s manager or however the management structure works in your organisation. I’m thinking here of things like bullying, harassment, manipulation, or any other form of treating people badly. This is usually not the other people’s problem to solve and this article is not really about things like this.

Tips for communication

Avoid words like always and never

Try not to say things like:
You never listen
You are always complaining

Instead, focus on actual real-life situations that have happened. Things that you can be specific about. Things that the other person can hopefully remember.

Last week …
At the team meeting on Friday …
When you replied to my email yesterday …

The problem with “you always” or “you never” sentences is that people can feel that nothing they do is ever good enough because you have already decided that they always get things wrong.

Focus on the problem, not the person

It’s easy to get carried away with how annoying or disrespectful or generally incompetent someone is in your opinion, but if you’re trying to address the situation, it’s better to focus on the problem.

If this information isn’t submitted on time, we can’t …/the customer will///
If these problems aren’t fixed, that will impact …
If we don’t meet our promise/service level agreement to …

What result will there be for the business or the customer? What result will there be that directly effects the person? Or what result will there be for you that the other person may not have considered?

It makes it difficult for me to
I am unable to

Focus on the behaviour, not what you think the person is

Some ways that people behave in the office are not ok.

Shouting at people is not ok

Not allowing people to speak in meetings is not ok

Talking over people is not ok

But don’t get into name-calling or telling the other person exactly what you think of them or what kind of person you think they are because it moves away from the facts.

Additional tips

Plan what you’re going to say when you can be calm.

Walk away if there is too much emotion. That doesn’t mean you’ve backed down and you won’t come back to the issue, but we all need time to collect our thoughts sometimes.

Maybe you’re also doing things that cause other people problems. If you’re going to confront others, you also need to be willing to see how your behaviour is affecting others – even if this is a difficult thing to do.

Don’t mirror the communication style – choose your own. Don’t match aggression with aggression

Change can be hard

Change can be hard, even if you see it as positive change.

Maybe you struggled with someone before the lockdown and move to more online working. Some things will be easier because you don’t have to share your space with them. Less contact may feel like a good thing, but it may also mean you have less contact with those whose presence helped or supported you.

Some companies have completely changed the way they work. However we feel about it, all change takes time to get used to.

Remote working doesn’t mean you have to deal with challenges with colleagues on your own. As well as looking at communication strategies, it’s also good to look for support and not be reluctant to ask for help if you feel that you need it.

Find out more

You can listen to me talking about this topic on episode 183 of my podcast.

You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter with tips and advice on various areas of communication using the form below.


    Author: Kirsty Wolf

    A language enthusiast who is passionate about life-long learning, effective communication, and teaching English. Also speaks German, Romanian and Turkish, though not all at the same level!