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3 Ways to Communicate Effectively with a Difficult Colleague

stressed businesswoman after taking a business call

Do you have a colleague you find it challenging to work with because of their poor communication habits? If so, you’re far from alone! A recent study found almost half of Americans do.

So, what can you do to improve the situation?

Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict and the forthcoming book Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone Even Difficult People, joined us recently on the Conferences for Women podcast, Women Amplified, and shared three tips.

1. Ask Questions

“I would start with a few questions to ask yourself,” says Gallo. “Number one is: What might you be doing to contribute to the situation? I don’t want you to feel like you have caused the situation. You may have just done your job and interacted professionally and respectfully. But it’s helpful to think about because what you can control is your behavior. What you can’t control is what the other person does.

“It also helps to ask: What made things worse, and what has made things better? Anytime you’re dealing with a difficult colleague you want to use your interactions as experiments. There’s no silver bullet. It’s a series of small experiments, trying out different tactics and seeing what works and doesn’t.

“The other piece about questions is they signal collaboration and that you have an interest in what they have to say.”

2. Consider Your Goals and Set Your Expectations

Second, Gallo suggests focusing on your goals. “If you are pursuing goals, for example, to make your colleague less toxic, then you’re never going to be able to achieve that. So instead focus on the information you need. What is it you have to learn that week? What is the goal for the next month? And how do you achieve that?”

3. Be Mindful of the Role of Ego – and Change Things Up

“If your colleague is feeling defensive or threatened, one of the things that we know can often soothe defensive behaviors is to compliment or reassure that person. Now, it’s never fun to want to have to stroke someone’s ego, especially someone who is being rude to you.

“But instead of seeing the compliment as something generous to your colleague, see it as helpful to you– because it may loosen up the dynamic in a way that could benefit you.”

In short, find a way to break the pattern of past negative interactions–by focusing on the behavior of the only person you can change, which is you.


Amy GalloFor more tips on communicating effectively with difficult colleagues, listen to Amy Gallo’s episode, “Conflict with a Co-Worker: That’s a Good Question,” on Women Amplified.