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A Guide to Managing Difficult Interactions at Work

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Tips for managing work conflict

Tips for managing work conflict

Difficult interactions, like beauty, are often in the eye of the beholder. You may feel that a fast-talking manager is too blunt while your colleague, who wants "just the facts," loves working with her. Behaviours often seem difficult when they are different from ours, or they get in the way of meeting our needs. Differences in work styles or values can also lead to problems. So can situations in which team members have divergent goals and objectives. Various root causes of difficult interactions are discussed in more detail later.

Is It Worth Your Time?

It's always important to maintain good working relationships, but not all relationships or interactions are of equal importance. As you think about improving work relationships, keep in mind the importance of each relationship to you–over the long term and the short term. If you have trouble with the work style of your manager's assistant and you need to interact with him daily on critical matters, that relationship has high priority. But you'd give a lower priority to resolving differences with a colleague who has been transferred off the project.

What Gets in the Way?

Learning to manage difficult interactions carries enormous benefits, but it requires hard work. The barriers to successful resolution range from failure to recognise the problem, to incorrect beliefs, to psychological fear of certain situations.


Failure to identify the problem

Identify whether the problem is a behaviour or a situation

Belief that difficult interactions re the fault of others or that you have no role/control over how wthese interactions proceed

Acknowledge your role in the difficult and establish what you can do to achieve the desired result

Fear of conflict

Acknowledge that while conflict can feel uncomfortable, it is a part of life. Examine ways to make yourself more comfortable with facing conflict. To motivate yourself, focus on the positive outcomes.

Not ready to manage the outcome of a difficult interaction, you prefer to accept the status quo

Evaluate whether the risks of the difficult interaction are worth the benefits of an improved situation. If they are, map out a plan and keep it in focus.

Belief that the problem will resolve itself.

Problems do not usually resolve themselves. Examine why.

Root Causes of Difficult Interactions and Their Solutions

Once you perceive that a certain behaviour is causing problems, try to identify its root cause. Some examples follow.

Problem 1

You perceive issues differently from the other person. For instance, you perceive upper management's directives as more important than a team member does.

Why do they see it that way?

We each have our own way of perceiving events, and that shapes our understanding of the world. For example, if you have experienced a layoff, you might read management's announcement of an expansion very differently from someone who has never lost a job. As we focus on factors that seem the most relevant to us, we look for evidence that supports our views. And our behaviour flows from this understanding.

Gender, work roles, and work experience can all influence perspective. The old-timer who has been with the company 27 years and knows how things have always been done will have a very different perspective from a new hire fresh out of business school.

Solution 1

When working with behaviours you find difficult, it is important to inquire, or at least conjecture, about the other's perspective. When you are able to acknowledge the other point of view and appreciate the other person's perception of the situation, you can move toward resolution.

Let's say you find someone's persistence in working on an issue you consider unimportant to be based on her perception that the situation is critical-that realisation can help you begin to reconcile your differences.

Problem 2

You are motivated by different intentions. You are motivated by quality, whereas a colleague is motivated by achievement.

Why does the other person act that way?

In order to understand someone's behaviour, you need to understand what motivates that person. It is possible to be influenced by more than one cause, but there is always a dominant one.

Work behaviour is often motivated by the need to:

  • complete the job promptly. For example, someone who considers completion a priority may have little patience to wait for additional details.
  • complete the job without any errors. Someone who wants to complete the project error-free may hold onto information or have trouble making quick decisions.
  • build relationships during the job. Someone who likes to get along may find it difficult to give feedback honestly.
  • gain recognition for the job. Someone who craves recognition may try to extend his or her project responsibilities to a high-profile area in order to ensure recognition.
  • avoid punishment or disapproval during the job. Someone who wants to avoid disapproval may go to great lengths to avoid risk.

Each motivation has its pluses and minuses. The real problems tend to start when people's needs are not met. For example, people who have a high need to get along may have trouble asserting themselves for fear of not being liked.

Solution 2

When you know what motivates someone, you can try to accommodate him or her, for mutual benefit. You can also use what you know about the other person to anticipate how the two of you can best work together.


How to Address Other People's Needs

Other Person's FearsResulting BehaviourWhat You Can Do

Not getting the task done promptly

Becomes more controlling

Acknowledge the other person's priority of achieving results. Keep communication with him or her focussed and to the point.

Not getting the task done correctly

Becomes more perfectionist and more impatient with other work styles

Acknowledge the need for accurate detail and pay great attention to the details in your communication with the other person.

Not getting along with others

Approval-seeking behaviours intesify

Show you care by initiating friendly interactions and personal communications

Not getting attention

Becomes more attention-grabbing

Recognise the contributions of the other person enthusiastically.

Disapproval from others

Becomes more risk-averse

Acknowledge the fear of disapproval and encourage taking decisive action based on the facts.


You work and communicate differently. You like to have all issues out in the open, but your manager prefers to deal with issues one at a time.

Why does he or she do it that way?

People have preferred work and communication styles. Some styles naturally work well together, while others clash.

Below are four preferred styles with descriptions and details about how they work. Determine which one sounds most like you and which one seems most like the other person in your interaction.


Once you've identified your work style and that of the other person, you can focus on how to accommodate each other's preferences.

Types of Personalities and Their Functions

Different Work Styles

TypeDescriptionHow They Work


Task-oriented people who like to take charge of people and situations. They tend to be competitive.

They do things their way and will go to extremes to work independently.


Task-oriented people who are methodical and thoughtful about the hows and whys of the project. They tend to like complex, contemplative tasks

They do things carefully and cautiously. They decide on issues after they have had time for private contemplation.


People-oriented people who seek approval from others. They tend to like spontaneous and expressive activities.

They are idea people who use persuasive communication to get others to work with them.


People-oriented people who seek stability and security. They tend to enjoy teamwork and need to know step-by-step plans.

They are the diplomats who can find ways to come to common solutions.


Your behaviour promotes a negative behaviour. For instance, your vigilance on a project's deadlines causes a team member to take less responsibility for meeting milestones.

What did I do to influence them to behave that way?

Behaviours do not work in isolation. They are reactions to something or someone. No one can make someone else do or feel something, but it's still important to acknowledge your role in influencing another's behaviour.


When you are aware of what you do that leads to an undesirable behaviour in someone else, try to avoid it or do something different. Influencing behaviours is a dynamic process-you can often see what works instantly. So if you're not getting the results you want, try something else.

How to Work with Different Work Styles

TyoesWhat They SeekHow to Work with Them


Authority and control

Give them information quckly, so that they can make an expedient decision


Accuracy and precision

Approach them in a non-threatening way. Give them time to gather information and deliberate


Popularity and appearance

Give them information and allow them to make it clear that the decision is collaborative.


Affiliation and stability

Give them information and ask them for their opinion

Should You Always Try to Work With Difficult Behaviours?

No. Some behaviours are too difficult to address in a business setting, or the payoff is not enough to warrant the time spent on it. Consider the possible outcomes and determine whether your time is worth it.

I understand the other person's behaviour, but I still don't enjoy working with him. What can I do?

Remember that the focus should be on the results and the working relationship. You don't have to like the person in order to find it worthwhile to address his or her difficult behaviour. Keep the focus of the conversation on results and on how to improve the working relationship. Two people can work very effectively without liking each other.

When the Root Cause Is a Situation

When the difficulty is the situation and not necessarily a specific behaviour, you need to communicate effectively in order to reconcile differences and reach agreements.

Listen First

"Listen first" means focusing on being open and non-judgemental while the other person explains his or her rationale. This kind of listening helps create a clearer understanding of the person's intent. It can also build trust and mutual appreciation.

Show you are trying to work with someone

  • Suspend judgement by keeping your mind open to other viewpoints
  • Listen thoughtfully to the words and the intention. Take notes.
  • Paraphrase what you have heard to check for understanding. For example, "What I hear you saying is...."
  • Ask questions for clarification. For example, "What specifically about my recommendation do you see as a problem?

Reconcile Differences: Issues, positions and interests

When people take differing positions on an issue and hold fast to them, teamwork grinds to a halt. The key to reconciling differences is to understand the other person's perspective by asking open-ended questions, and to make your perspective clear by explaining your rationale.



Point of discussion or dispute

Additional vacation time


Stance one takes on the issue

Position A: I should receive the same vacation as the other departmental managers. Position B: You can have the same vacation when you have been here longer


A person's desire or objective

Interest A: I want to be treated fairly, Interest B: I need you to be around to manage this large software implementation

Creative Solution

Solution satisfies both interests at least partially

Get additional week of vacation, but take it off only as a series of long weekends

Use Questions to Uncover Interests

Usually people know what the issue causing the difficulty is and what their position on it is. However, they may not be aware of the underlying interests that shape their position. To uncover these interests, you need to ask open-ended questions. For example, "Why is it that you're not willing to give me the same amount of vacation time that other departmental managers have?"

Use Reasoning to Get Your Point Across

You also need to be able to explain your own underlying interests. State your position, the data supporting it, and the impact of what you're proposing. Elicit the other person's reaction to your explanation.

Once your and the other person's interests are clearly understood, the two of you can begin to search for creative solutions.

Basic Steps for Handling Difficult Interactions

  • Identify the root cause
  • Select a strategy based on the root cause.
  • Implement the strategy.
  • Monitor your strategy's effectiveness

Identify the Root Cause

Difficult interactions can arise because:

  • two people perceive a behaviour, issue, or situation differently
  • two people are motivated by different interests
  • two people have different work styles
  • one person's behaviour promotes negative behaviour by the other person.

Select a Strategy Based on the Root Cause

  • Try to understand the difficult interaction from the other person's perspective.
  • Ask open-ended questions to uncover the other person's motivations.
  • When the root cause is behaviour, identify the underlying emotion-fear, worry, etc.—and acknowledge it to the other person.
  • When the root cause is a work style, try to adjust your behaviour so that you are interacting with the other person in the way that she or he feels most comfortable.
  • When the root cause is your own behaviour, change it.
  • When the source of the difficulty is a situation, work to uncover the other person's interests and communicate your own as well.

Monitor Your Strategy's Effectiveness

  • Listen carefully during the implementation.
  • Give the other person a chance to respond.

Steps for Changing Your Own Behaviour

  • Identify the behaviour you dislike in another person.
  • Examine what change in your own behaviour is likely to minimise the difficult behaviour in the other person.
  • Explore the values and perceptions that make it difficult for you to change.
  • Pick one area in which you can accommodate the other person.
  • Implement your strategy slowly.
  • Watch carefully for any changes in the other person's behaviour-make sure to reward such changes.

Steps for Preparing for a Difficult Interaction

  • Define the purpose of the interaction together.
  • Describe any events that are affecting this interaction.
  • Identify the desired end results and any obstacles that exist.
  • Be prepared to describe what will happen if the problem is not resolved.

Steps for Using Communication Techniques to Reconcile Differences

  • Use active listening techniques to convey your interest.
  • Discover each person's underlying interests
  • Ask for and make proposals about how to resolve the issue.

Use Active Listening Techniques to Convey Your Interest

  • Set aside your own reactions and listen for the other person's intentions and feelings.
  • Initially, keep your own opinions out of the conversation.
  • Paraphrase what you hear.
  • Check for any unspoken assumptions or feelings the other person may have

Discover Each Person's Underlying Interests

  • Make your perceptions and rationale explicit.
  • Check for understanding.
  • Ask the other person to clarify her or his point of view.
  • Acknowledge the other person's point of view.

Ask for and Make Proposals About How to Resolve the Issue

  • Start with small agreements.
  • Work with one idea at a time.
  • Focus on agreement, not disagreement

Tips for Effective Listening

  • Suspend judgement
  • Paraphrase what the other person has said
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Maintain eye contact and use body language that indicates receptivity.

Tips for Maintaining Effective Work Relationships

  • Emphasise a mutual problem-solving approach.
  • Be approachable.
  • Accept people as they are.
  • Keep relationship issues separate from process issues.
  • Balance reason with emotions
  • Use active listening to inquire, listen, and understand the other person
  • Consult with others before deciding on an action
  • Rely on persuasion to get to agreements

Tips for Responding to Upsetting Behaviours

  • You can't avoid conflicts, but you can manage their outcomes
  • Treat difficult behaviour as a joint problem
  • Establish agreement on core issues. Work in the present tense-avoid reference to past mistakes
  • Don't get caught in an eye-for-an-eye policy.

Tips for Working With Particular Difficult Behaviours

If the person does this.....You do this...

Fixates on the same issue and won't let you move on

Demonstrate that the issue has been heard and recorded. If the person cannot let go of it, ask if he or she would like to take five minutes to make the point again, so that you can move on to the rest of the topics.

Objects to everything

Before the interaction, get an agreement that all topics will be addressed before eliminating any.

Uses experience and other credentials to argue a point

Acknowledge the experience, but eplain a different view.

Attacks your position and takes an aggressive stance

Repeat the other person's main point. Make your case firmly and stand by it.

Takes on commitments and agreements that he or she cannot meet

Help the person plan, so he or she can make realistic commitments. Make it safe for the person to take on on what he or she can complete in a timely fashion. Support the person in meeting his or her commitments.

Makes no comment and keeps feeling well guarded

Make sure he or she has the time to talk. Ask open-ended questions and wait for the response.

Tips for Dealing with Role-Specific Behaviours

Tips for Managing a Direct Report's Difficult Behaviour

Before the interaction:

  • Make your expectations explicit.
  • Prepare yourself mentally-rehearse how it may proceed.
  • Consult a third person for advice

During the interaction:

  • Take a break.
  • Count to 10 if a break isn't possible.
  • Acknowledge and talk about your emotions.
  • Accept responsibility for the behaviour, if appropriate.

Tips for Managing a Co-worker's Difficult Behaviour

  • Work on a problem together to see if mutual goals can inspire you to work better together.
  • Share credit to de-emphasise rivalries.
  • Give feedback about the issues that you find are a problem.

Tips for Handling Difficult Behaviour From Your Manager

  • Consider whether the person is aware of the impact of the behaviour.
  • Try to determine whether an underlying perception about your work is getting in the way of working together.

The Ultimate Takeaway

Now you know almost everything there is to know about managing conflicts at work. Remember, every situation is different, but usually, practising good communication and trying to identify the root of the issue can help resolve problems a lot faster.

Do you have any tips for managing difficult interactions at work? Let us know in the comments below!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Mr Singh