The workplace is filled with difficult personalities—bullies, know-it-alls, rumor mongers. Our fallback reaction when faced with problem people at work is to either assert ourselves or walk swiftly in the other direction.
But there's a middle ground, a way of communicating that's more effective, because it's not rigid or oppositional. It's about being fluid, surrendering to your intuition, and letting go of your need to push back or control the outcome. Your ability to go with the flow is really important when dealing with difficult people.
Here are five difficult workplace types and some communication strategies for each type.
1. The Narcissist
These types have an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement, crave attention and require endless praise. Some are obnoxious egomaniacs, others can be quite charming. Both types know how to belittle you and make you serve them. First, let go of the belief that you can win them over with loyalty and love. Narcissists value control and power over love, and they lack empathy. Next, don't make your self-worth dependent on them. Seek out supportive co-workers and colleagues instead. Finally, to get your goals met with narcissists, frame your request in ways they can hear—such as showing them how your request will be beneficial to them. Ego stroking and flattery also work.
2. The Passive-Aggressive Co-Worker
These types express anger while they're smiling or showing exaggerated concern. They always maintain their cool, even if through clenched teeth. Start by trusting your gut reactions and the feeling that their behavior feels hurtful. Say to yourself, "I deserve to be treated better and with more respect." If the person is someone you can speak directly with—a team member as opposed to a boss—address the behavior specifically and directly. You could say, for example, "I would greatly appreciate it if you remembered our meeting time. My time's very valuable, as is yours." If the person doesn't or won't change, you can decide whether to accept their behavior or not.
3. The Gossip
Gossipy busybodies delight in talking about others behind their backs, putting them down, and spreading harmful rumors. They also love to draw others into their toxic conversations. Start by letting go of your need to please everyone or control what they say. Then be direct by saying, "Your comments are inconsiderate and hurtful. How would you like people talking about you like that?" You can also refuse to participate by simply changing the subject. Don't share intimate information with gossip mongers. And finally, don't take gossip personally. Realize that gossips aren't happy or secure. Do what you can to rise to a higher place and ignore them.
4. The Anger Addict
Rageaholics deal with conflict by accusing, attacking, humiliating or criticizing. Let go of your reactivity. Take a few short breaths to relax your body. Count to 10. Pause before you speak. If they're spewing verbal venom at you, imagine that you're transparent and their words are going right through you. To disarm an anger addict, acknowledge their position, and then politely say you have a slightly different approach you'd like to share. Request a small, doable change that can meet your need. Then clarify how it will benefit the relationship. Finally, empathize. Ask yourself what pain or inadequacy might be making this person act so angry.
5. The Guilt Tripper
These workplace types are world-class blamers, martyrs and drama queens. They know how to make you feel terrible about something by pressing your insecurity buttons. Start by surrendering the notion that you have to be perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, so if the guilt tripper is scolding you, you can simply apologize or take responsibility, and that will shut them down. If you need to, find a safe place to cry. Tears will cleanse the stress and help you heal. Also, know your guilt buttons. If there's something you feel bad about, you can work on being compassionate with yourself so you'll feel stronger when this difficult co-worker tries to push that particular button. Finally, set limits with the guilt tripper. Tell them you can see their point of view, but that it hurts your feelings when they say those things, and you'd be grateful if they stopped saying it.
Dr. Judith Orloff is assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of The Ecstasy of Surrender: 12 Surprising Ways Letting Go Can Empower Your Life, to be released in April.