Empathy-Based Techniques for Navigating Difficult Behavior in the Workplace

Core Values Series

The workforce is facing a host of daily challenges; With the coronavirus pandemic, physical and mental health, financial stress, “Zoom gloom”, and many other worries, many people are left feeling exhausted.

As one of Gate 39 Media’s core values, empathy plays an immense role in helping us understand and manage manifestations of difficult behavior that may stem from a stressful 2020 in otherwise agreeable colleagues.

We may understand how to navigate tough situations with loved ones, but when it comes to coworkers and clients, how can we best prepare for interactions with those who are being difficult?

A delicate balancing act must occur and as we strive keep our teammates and our clients happy, the key to this may lie in meeting them where they are emotionally. This is true of every line of work.

Key Techniques for Managing Different Behaviors

By understanding how to successfully interact with your teammates when they are exhibiting difficult behaviors, the more comfortable you will generally feel working with them and the more confident you’ll feel applying this skill to client interactions as well.

Regardless of your relationship to the other person, be mindful of your patience and compassion. Working remotely can be more of a challenge for some people than others, but everyone is doing the best they can with what they have been given.

Empathy will be your best friend when entering a challenging situation with a difficult coworker or client. Think about that other person before the call and keep your focus on them throughout your virtual interaction.

The key is learning to recognize difficult patterns so that we can understand how to best approach different people. While there are many ways to categorize these behaviors, Tom Esch, Founder of Esch Consulting, breaks them into three groups: Aggressive, Passive, or Passive-Aggressive.

Here is a breakdown of the three behaviors and how to leverage empathy to interact with those who exhibit them.

Aggressive Behavior

Difficult people who exhibit aggressive behavior may be physically or emotionally threatening. When working with aggressive people, you’ll need to keep yourself safe by remaining calm.

  • Have a discussion with this person using depersonalized communication.
  • Do not be afraid to assert authority and control in conversations with an aggressor.
  • Your voice is your most powerful virtual communication tool, which can engage the other person and demonstrate your command.
  • If the aggressor tries to interrupt you while you are speaking, let them know you’ll finish your point and will allow them to respond. Remember, asserting control does not mean neglecting your empathy. Continue to focus on the other person without letting them steamroll you.
  • If you believe the situation could escalate with only your intervention, ask someone who the aggressor holds in high regard to assist you in managing this person.

Passive Behavior

A passive person is often trying to avoid assuming responsibility for something related to a stressful trigger for them. This person may also have issues with self-image where self worth and emotional expression are concerned.

  • To successfully work with a passive person, the very first thing you should do in approaching them is to provide plenty of notice that a conversation will be taking place. Surprises do not go over well with passive people.
  • Set your communication expectations up front so your conversation is productive and allows you space to really hear and empathize with the other person.
  • While in conversation, focus on their non-verbal communication and provide them with specific action tasks and due dates. Keep communication direct and expectations tempered.

Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive people are at times either too indirect (passive) or too direct (aggressive). They may be hostile in an unassuming way. If you notice someone acting noncommittal, unusually quiet, insulting, or forgetful, this person may be exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior.

  • First and foremost, do not let these passive-aggressive actions get to you. This is the most difficult but important part of managing this type of person.
  • Try invoking empathy and offering positive assertions while still confronting the issue.
  • Do not apologize to them but ensure that you hold them accountable without judgement or blame.
  • Regardless of who is on the other end of a call, simply turning your camera on and making eye contact will “open up” the humanity and empathy we have for one another.
  • You can also empathize with the difficult person you are working with by finding the passive or aggressive behaviors you may also tend to exhibit.

In summation, an awareness of these different patterns of conduct and how best to handle them will be the key to maintaining a happy and productive workplace, both internally and externally.

Remember to be respectful of what others may be going through outside of the context of work. And, above all else, keep in mind when you may be the difficult one in the room and apply these same tools to keeping yourself calm, cool, and collected.

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