Conflict communication

How to Deal With Difficult Colleagues

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Some colleagues just drive us nuts. It's the things they say or do or how they talk to us. It's not even one single thing that can summarize a difficult colleague. Some people find it difficult if others complain all the time and others if someone is unreliable.  

Everything is a matter of perception

The first thing that we have to keep in mind when confronted with a difficult colleague, is that everything is a matter of perception and everything can be reframed. If you take someone who you would say is very critical or always complaining, keep in mind that someone else might find the person has an eye for the details or is very quality driven. 

Practicing to see the other side of things - according to the development square by Schulz von Thun - can be a good way to start seeing the grey between the black and white. A good exercise is, to note down all the things that you find difficult about your colleagues. Also note down all the things you think your colleagues find difficult about yourself. Then go through the exercise and reframe the things: picky might become 'knows what he wants', critical becomes thoughtful etc. If you do the exercise together with a couple of colleagues it might be easier. 

To learn how to deal with someone who is attacking or shouting at you, it's best to have a strategy that you iteratively adjust.

Don't get emotional

Don't put emotions into a situation that you don't want to escalate. Make sure to find some excuse that allows you to leave the situation or get back to the person later on. So let's say a colleague tells you 5 minutes before you will present the project plan to your boss that he already made a better proposal yesterday and forgot to tell you. Don't explode, stay professional, suck it up for now. You can talk to the person later, when you have obviously rational arguments for why that was totally inacceptable and what you suggest for the future.

Question Yourself

If there is something about someone that drives you completely nuts, question yourself if it's you. There are some things that you might project onto others: Maybe the person reminds you of your ex-partner and by now you hate that person. Or you are a person that feels criticized easily and everything you hear from that specific person is criticism - that might have nothing to do with what the person is actually trying to communicate. Check with other people how they perceive the person and reflect on yours. On top of that, start focusing on the positive things and strengths of the person. The halo effect might just ruin the person for you. 

Talk to the person

Don't talk behind her / his back but approach the person directly. If you start bitching about the person it's not fair play anymore and will eventually backfire on you anyways. Seek the conversation and try to follow the steps for negative feedback. Keep it on the objective level and use 'I messages'.

Keep your distance...

... if all the rest has not been working. That doesn't mean that you have to avoid the person completely - schedule the relevant and important meetings. Don't have unnecessary conversations about private life and don't pretend to be best friends with him / her. 

How to handle attacks

If you feel attacked in a meeting or personal conversation, it's also good to be prepared and have a strategy for it. There are some killer phrases people are using to make you shut up or turn down your idea within a second. That would be something such as "We have to do it like that. The customer wants it that way." or "That doesn't make any sense." Try to find out what the person really wants to tell you with that and don't feel intimidated. Your answer could be something like "What exactly does the customer want. How did you find out about it? How big is the data base?" etc. 

On top of that, it's good to have one sentence prepared how to handle an attack. You could be using a sentence that confuses the other person e.g. "Look at that." or "Oh well." and buys you some time. Or you can start out with something that builds up a bridge to your actual reply - "Oh that sounds interesting, let me think about it." this one also buys you some time to come up with an answer. Pick one sentence that you feel comfortable with and start using it: If you are attacked, your brain stresses out and you might be loosing your repartee. 

How To Change Your Conflict Perception

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Quelle: Wikipedia

Quelle: Wikipedia

Conflicts are something we usually associate with something negative. We associate it with fightig, war and conflicting opinions. In a stabe relationship it's not a problem to have two conflicting opinions or to simply disagree on something. The part that actually lets a conflict arise are our emotions, interpretations and evaluations. It's the way that we handle the conflict, perceive and treat the other person. We can be appreciative and still disagree on something or just enforce what we want on the cost of the other person.  

Once a conflict is started, it starts its own dynamic. One way to get out of it, is to acknowledge the other person's emotions and resolve whatever has built up on that level. Once this is taken care of, we can espace the conflict ladder and talk about the actual subject / object we seemed to be fighting about.


There are different types of people when it comes to conflict behavior. Everyone has their own strategy when a conflict comes up. Depending on who you are with or in which context you are in, you might choose different strategies. When we look for example at 'enforcement' we can see, that this strategy will get you what you want but you pay a price: you won't be able to maintain the (good) relationship with that person. 

Most of the times we settle on compromises. Looking at the graphics, you can tell that the compromise doesn't give you the best possible outcome and you also can't keep the relationship the way you had it. 

So how can we get to the win-win cooperation? 

Focus on the person

When you talk to someone about a topic that seems to be getting kind of hot: focus on the feelings and needs of the other person. It could be that the person didn't see himself represented in the process or not appreciated. If you notice something, directly bring it up. Otherwise the conversation will go in circles because it is not really about the subject anymore.

Find out what the other one really really wants

Many times, what we really really want is appreciation. E.g. let's say you have a discussion around working hours. Is it about the working hours themselves or is it actually about fairness, appreciation and balance? It could even be about productivity and the concern of not being able to provide the best possible outcome in the fastest possible way because you are tired. Let the other person know about your thoughts directly. Find a common ground that you can base the discussion on. Maybe both of you want the best possible outcome and fairness.  

Don't make assumptions or interpretations

We are used to evaluate, judge and interpret things. When we see someone walking into a meeting three minutes after we started, we will say "you are late". This is a judgement. An interpretation could even be "you are a mean and thoughtless person who made us wait" or "you are respectless because you are stealing our time" or "you did that on purpose to show how powerful you are". A description would have been "you are walking into the meeting three minutes after the agreed starting time". Every interpretation, judgement or evaluation can harm our team members and the relationship we have - especially when we assume or conclude the "wrong" things (it doesn't match the ones the other person as). If you describe to the other person what happened and let them know how it impacted you, you lay the foundation for a fruitful conversation.