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How To Handle Difficult Behavior In The Workplace

Premise: Conflict is a normal and natural occurrence of interacting with one another. The cost of resolving conflict is negligible relative to the cost of leaving conflicts unresolved.

Observations: Conflicts invariably arise between individuals in an organization, between organizational components, or between institutions. It has become part of our job duties; however, some studies suggest that 30-40% of a manager’s daily activities are devoted to dealing with some form of interpersonal conflict. A manager’s inability to effectively deal with anger and conflict in the workplace may result in a large loss of productivity and adversely impact others who work there. In the workplace there is either real or perceived unfair treatment, emotional abuse, discrimination, sexual harassment, disparate treatment, cultural diversity, anger, hostility, or potential violence. Having to endure these conflicts without sufficient tools, resources, outlets, or support, employees are destined to experience discomfort, and this distress can get out of control.

Definitions: Difficult behavior can inhibit performance in others and will only deteriorate if left alone, contaminating more people and incurring hidden costs for the organization. It takes many forms like rudeness, yelling, shunning, mobbing, gossiping, refusing to talk to or acknowledge others, harassing, incessant complaining to supervisors, ignoring directives, and slow working.

Recommendations: Most conflict within and involving people revolve around unfulfilled needs, primarily the psychological need for control, recognition, affection, and respect. These needs are natural and quite human in that we all crave them, but when unacceptable or problematic behavior has been rewarded in the past in fulfillment of these needs, difficult behavior motivates the individual. We should try not to reward difficult behavior or reinforce actions or inactions that manifest it. There is no magic pill but there is a prescription to change behavior in others. It takes time and patience to cure such negative characteristics, and it doesn’t help to ignore the problem behavior or respond likewise or criticize rather than cure or just brand someone as a problem and be the psychiatrist to their craziness. We can work to prevent unproductive and negative behavior that leads to conflict.


is easy to say but hard to remember when our emotions are blazing with anger, frustration, helplessness, or confusion over the actions of another, who we want to label as stupid, insecure, hostile, inferior, miserable, or other negative coloration. What can happen is that we begin to see that person in that color only and trap them in stereotype with a label that becomes self-fulfilling. Holding onto the resentment of people you have to work with punishes you as much as it does them. You won’t change relationships by trying to control other people’s behavior, but you can by changing yourself in relation to them. You can place your energy in blaming and deriding someone or you can use it to experiment how to find more productive means of interaction. It’s not easy to go back for more of the same old crap concerning somebody time after time, so why do you consistently relate that way? Change something!


A basic problem in communication lies not so much in conflicting positions, but in the conflict between each person’s needs, desires, concerns, and fears. One person may say to another, “You’re such a perfectionist in everything you do around here, and I’m tired of you thinking you’re always right.” That position is something the speaker has decided upon, but the interest is what caused that decision. The underlying interest might be a lack of training and a fear of competition with a skilled coworker. The other person may not knowingly be competing but merely trying to do a good job, but the perception enables the conflict. Interests motivate people and are the silent movers behind the hubbub of positions.

Reconciling interests rather than positions works toward resolution. For every interest there usually exist several possible solutions that could satisfy it, but all too often people simply adopt the most obvious position. When you look behind opposed positions for the motivating interests, you can often find an alternative position which meets not only your interests but theirs as well. Reconciling interests rather than compromising between positions also works because under opposed positions lie many more interests than conflicting ones. We tend to assume that because the other person’s positions are opposed to ours, their interests must also be opposed. In many workplace conflicts a close examination of underlying interests will reveal the existence of many more interests that are shared or compatible than ones that are opposite.

When a coworker feels threatened by a “perfectionist” in the office and that feeling of intimidation boils over into overt hostility, these two people could become locked in conflict. A closer examination may reveal both want stability in the workplace and a good relationship with each other, but their stated positions separate them and damage their relationship. As positions become concrete and explicit, the underlying interests may well be unexpressed, intangible, and even inconsistent. So, how do you go about understanding the interests involved in a workplace conflict; remember that figuring out the other person’s interests may be at least as important as identifying yours?


We all know how hard it is to deal with a problem without people misunderstanding each other, getting angry or upset, and taking things personally. A major consequence of human interaction in communications is that the parties’ relationship tends to become entangled with their discussions of substance and egos tend to become involved in substantive positions. People draw from comments on substance or unfounded inferences, which they then treat as facts about that person’s intentions and attitudes toward them. People tend to see what they want to see and, from all available facts and information, will select and focus on those that confirm their prior perceptions and disregard or misinterpret those that call their perceptions into question. It is important to discuss each other’s perceptions and look for opportunities to act inconsistently with those perceptions.


Listening is an art by which we use empathy to reach across the space between us. Passive attention doesn’t work. Not only is listening an active process, it often takes a deliberate effort to suspend our own needs and reactions. To listen well you must hold back what you have to say and control the urge to interrupt or argue. The art of listening requires a submersion of the self and immersion in the other. This is not always easy, especially when we are interested but too concerned with controlling or instructing or reforming the other person to be truly open to their point of view.

Anytime you demonstrate a willingness to listen with a minimum of defensiveness, criticism, or impatience, you are giving the gift of understanding and earning the right to have it reciprocated. Suspending your needs long enough to hear the other person out is part of willing yourself to listen, but suspending your needs is not the same as becoming a nonself. Trying to listen when you’re really not up to it dries up your capacity to empathize. Some listeners are so fearful of exerting their own individuality that they become nonselves, tucked into others, embedded in a safe framework of obligations and duties. These people find it easier to accommodate than to deal with conflict, threats of rejection, arguments, or signs of distress in others. Such compliant people may seem like good listeners but aren’t really listening if they are nothing but a passive receptacle or reluctant sponge. Listening well is often silent but never passive.

Effective communication is not achieved simply by taking turns talking but requires a concerted effort at mutual understanding. A good way to promote understanding is to take time to restate the other person’s position in your own words then ask her to correct or affirm your understanding of her thoughts and feelings. If you work on this process of explicit feedback and confirmation until the other person has no doubt that you grasp her position, she will feel understood, and she will then be more open to hearing from you. The simple failure to acknowledge what the other person says explains much of the friction in our lives. Furthermore, you don’t have to be responsible for someone’s feelings to be aware of them and to acknowledge them. When two people keep restating their own positions without acknowledging what the other is trying to say, the result is dueling points of view. Whether or not someone is really listening only that person truly knows, but, if someone does not feel listened to, he doesn’t feel listened to. We judge whether or not others are listening to us by the signals we see.


Emotions play an important role in everyday behavior, and there is no thought, attitude, idea, or action that does not have a related emotional counterpart. Because of our childhood conditioning and societal norms, we often suppress or disguise our emotions, but they do exist and exert their force no matter how subtle or indistinguishable a form they take. For example, when a coworker becomes angry at something you have said, instead of expressing the feeling in productive communication he may suddenly request sick leave for the rest of the day. In any relationship between people who are in continuous interaction over a period of time, certain tolerable limits of emotional communication are established and these boundaries are often drawn to not include an honest exchange of feelings. Throughout most of our lives we have developed ways to express disappointment, anger, or discontent in somewhat less than honest terms. Through conditioning and experience some have learned that exhibiting hostility can prove ineffective in solving problems with others and, rather than direct confrontation, circumnavigate the stormy waters by using what is believed to be more socially acceptable forms of expression. This behavior may be functional to a point, since continuous complaining and abrasive individuals become ostracized, but discontent with one’s situation should find some form of expression which is rational and by which solutions to problems may be found. If left unexpressed or if expressed irrationally, emotions will inhibit progress in improving relationships. Honest and open communications are necessary for a healthy, growth-oriented working environment, and people must be made to believe that expressing themselves openly is much healthier for all concerned. This can only occur when people feel safe in that expression, trust in the promises of mutual commitment to resolution, and do not fear retaliation for open and honest participation.

One of the secrets of dealing with difficult people in our lives is to figure out how to play the hand we’re dealt, rather than complaining and moaning about what that hand is. The reason some people in our lives remain one dimensional is because that’s as far as we go with them. Few workplace relationships last long if all one person does is complain to or about the other. Listening to that person, especially to complaints, can be a burden, but if you have an associate who takes advantage of your willingness to listen, without listening back to you, this emotional burden can be difficult to bear. You can let this go on until it begins to hurt, or you can do something about it. Express yourself. When two people are locked in silent conflict, the best way to break the impasse is to elicit and acknowledge the other’s feelings. This applies especially to cases of mutual misunderstanding. Don’t be too quick to tell your side, but concentrate first on listening to the other person. Of course, if that person has hurt or annoyed you and doesn’t know it, saying something about how you feel may be the only way to keep your resentment from escalating the situation.


  • Use Conflict as a Natural Resource.People who work together have different perceptions, and it would be unnatural if they did not disagree from time to time. The conflict generated can be a first step on the road to improving communication, solving a problem, and even building trust and cooperation. Avoidance or hiding conflict can be much more damaging in the workplace than facing it and dealing with it appropriately. You may even find that proverbial silver lining in a dark cloud.
  • Don’t React. Take time to cool off and gather your emotions. The most natural thing to do when faced with a difficult person or situation is to react. Give yourself time to think and remain focused on identifying the real needs and interests of the other person and yourself. Deep breathing and counting to ten is very helpful.
  • Deal with Feelings. Helping the other person identify or acknowledge their feelings tends to reduce the intensity of those feelings and allows the person to focus on the underlying issues. By encouraging and permitting the expression of negative feelings without fear of reprisal or punishment, you have increased the probability that your similar emotional expressions will be better accepted.
  • Attack the Problem, Not the Person. Keep an objective eye on the problem and detach any feelings about the person presenting it. Try to understand what the actual problem is and generate possibilities for settling it. Don’t attack the other person and try to see the situation from their point of view. If you make assumptions about their behavior, verify by asking or repeat what you thought you heard. Show respect, try not to interrupt, and avoid using hostile words that inflame.
  • Practice Direct Communication. Speak directly to the other party. Use “I” statements and be clear about points of agreement, about purpose, and about needs. Use body language to show support and attention. Ask questions to clarify and paraphrase what the other person is attempting to communicate to you. Ask problem solving questions. Other people can provide you with some very important information about yourself, positive and negative, and you can provide equally important information helpful to them. Words alone do not convey this information, so be aware of your body language and tone of voice.
  • Look Past Positions to the Underlying Interests. A position is someone’s limited view of what solution is necessary to meet a particular need. Until the needs and interests of each of you are ascertained, it is not possible to generate options that will be mutually beneficial and agreeable. Try to identify the other person’s physical or psychological needs, along with your common interests. You can bring these interests to the surface or you can leave them submerged only to emerge in unmanageable ways later.
  • Focus on the Future. Proving or disproving past allegations may not be of value to a continuing relationship at work. Give the other person ownership in the resolution. Don’t sell your ideas but engage in a joint problem solving discussion. Ask what’s important and be sure agreement is reached in dignity and respect for each of you. Any ongoing relationship you have with someone is longitudinal and can be altered to be constructive and improved. What just happened may be important or it may be trivial depending on how you want to make it appear just now. Remember, in a marathon you must pace yourself and believe that things will improve if only you give it the chance.

Holding onto the resentment of people you have to work with punishes you as much as it does them. You don’t change relationships by trying to control people’s behavior but by changing yourself in relation to them. Listening to and showing respect for the people we work with doesn’t have to be the same as becoming friends. When deeply felt but unexpressed feelings take shape in the words that we share and come back clarified, the result is a reassuring sense of being understood and a grateful feeling of humanness with the one who understands. If listening fortifies our relationships by cementing a better connection with another, it also fortifies our sense of self. In the presence of a receptive listener we are able to clarify what we think and discover what we feel.


Tony Belak

Tony Belak is the Ombuds at the University of Louisville, Associate Director of the Center for Conflict Resolution at La Sierra University, Riverside, California, associate director of the International Center for Compassionate Organizations and the former Executive Director of the International Center for Collaborative Solutions at Sullivan University, Louisville,… MORE >

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