Is a difficult colleague getting to you?

One of my coaching clients is having a really hard time at his job with a third sector organisation. A difficult colleague is making his life very tough. She’s blocking his ideas. Blanking him in the corridor. Undermining him in meetings.

And it’s really beginning to take its toll.

He’s stressed and anxious most of the time. He feels like he’s walking on eggshells as he tries to keep out of her way. He can’t concentrate. He wakes up in the early hours deeply worried about what to do. He even thinks he might have to leave his job.


I often hear from clients struggling with difficult colleagues in my one-to-one coaching sessions in third sector organisations. It’s inevitable that you won’t be bosom buddies with everyone. But challenging relationships can wreck your confidence and leave you feeling there’s no alternative but to leave.

This has certainly happened to me.

Many years ago, I went through a really tough time myself. Some of my colleagues at my otherwise fabulous charity job, felt I’d let them down. They made work an uncomfortable place to be for a while and my confidence took a massive blow.

In the end, time healed the rift. But I really wish I’d known the techniques for handling difficult colleagues that I share in my one-to-one coaching. I wish I’d known that I had the right to stand up for myself and challenge bad behaviour.

I know how absolutely terrifying it feels to confront difficult colleagues with whom you don’t see eye to eye. I didn’t do it all those years ago! You can’t ever know the outcome – because you can’t change someone else’s behaviour, only your own – but at least if you take positive action you will know you acted with integrity and did your best to resolve a challenging situation.

If this scenario is familiar, and you know you need to push through your fear, here’s how:

  1. Invite them to a one-to-one meeting

Tell them you’d like to discuss the way that the two of you are getting along. Mention that it seems to be affecting both your work. Invite them by email, or face-to-face, but make sure you meet in person. You might want to get together in a public place, with other colleagues around, just to keep a lid on over-spilling emotions.

  1. Be very specific about the problems you want resolving

In your meeting, this approach is far more likely to get results than making vague generalisations which the other person can refute. Get really clear on exactly what the problem is from your perspective and what you’d like to be different. You’ll need to spend some time thinking about this beforehand. You may even want to practice how you say your key points.

  1. Use passive and distancing language to keep things neutral

“You did this or that” immediately gets the other person’s back up. They’ll go defensive and you could end up making things worse. Try instead to use passive or distancing language, like this –  “I notice we get into confrontations when a deadline is looming” or “My thoughts were disrupted when you interrupted me in that meeting”. Statements like this are far easier to hear but you are still being 100% clear about the problem.

  1. Listen and acknowledge the other person and what they have to say

talk_to_your_difficult_colleagueMake sure it’s not a monologue on your part. Invite them to respond with  curious questions such as “How does that sound?’ or “What do you think is happening?” Let them talk. Try not to get too caught up in their accusations, if there are any. Try responding with short statements such as “that’s interesting” and “I see”. Be as curious, genuine and warm as you can. It may just be that there are things that you genuinely didn’t realise about the situation from their perspective

5. Keep a control of your emotions as best you can

When you get too emotional or tearful you can undermine the power of what you have to say. If you find yourself getting upset, ask for a short break, do some calm breathing, and continue when you feel better.

6. Stay in the meeting until you get a resolution

Do your very best to come to a joint agreement on how you want their behaviour to change. The best way to do this is simply to ask. It’s amazing how many of my one-to-one coaching clients haven’t done this when they thought they’d done everything to resolve a situation.

You don’t want to leave any doubt at all as to what you expect now. Use this format – “I would like you to…” plus, a positive and very specific action such as “I would like you to let me to finish my sentences in meetings” or “I’d like you to give me a day’s notice when you need my input so we don’t get into conflict when time is tight.” Make sure what you’re asking for is achievable, monitorable and positive – not what you don’t want them to do, such as to stop interrupting you.

And leave it at that. Don’t be tempted to keep talking – apart from thanking them for their time. You may not have covered all the problems as you see them but you have started a process.

When you confront difficult colleagues in this way, despite your fear that it might backfire, you show real leadership. You show that you are in control and that you’re not prepared to take whatever is thrown at you.

People respect this and you may find that others will follow your example in standing up to poor behaviour.

Over to you

Have you ever confronted a difficult colleague at work? How did it go? What strategies worked best? Perhaps someone is really getting to you and it’s knocked your self-belief. Do join in the conversation and share your thoughts in the Comments Box below.

What next?

If a difficult relationship is undermining your confidence and affecting your work, (or one of your reports is struggling with a difficult colleague) book a free initial Discovery Session to see how coaching with me can help.