young black woman holding up a help sign while surrounded by coworkers

If you’ve ever had a coworker that gets on your nerves, you know they can impact not just your mood but your entire day. That person that never does what you need them to in a timely manner. That person that is constantly focused on problems rather than solutions. Maybe they gossip about you behind your back. Maybe they ask for your opinion and then claim your ideas as their own in a meeting. They are the schmoozers playing the politics game rather than doing the work that’s expected of them. Maybe they are closed minded around any opinions that don’t align with their own. Regardless of the specific reason, if they are getting on your nerves, this feeling can build up over time if not addressed!

You spend a large percentage of your waking life at work, and you deserve for it to be as positive and pleasant an experience as you can make it! While you don’t need to be best friends with everyone, you need to have a productive working relationship. If this person continues to get on your nerves, that just can’t happen. It’s important to separate your emotions from how you communicate, and how you show up. Chances are, their behavior isn’t specifically about you. You have no idea what’s going on with them personally or professionally. So why allow it to impact how you feel and your ability to reach your professional goals?

7 Mindful Tips: Engaging with Difficult Coworkers

1. Adjust your mindset.

If you’re already walking in with negative feelings about your colleague, you are more likely to exacerbate the situation. You might be assuming the worst. Your tone and words might encourage the very behavior that bothers you in the first place. Before engaging with this particular coworker, take some quiet time to adjust your mindset to a less emotional place. You can do this by pausing and taking some deep breaths. Or, try this guided meditation that can help you arrive as your best self: Guided Meditation for Engaging with Difficult Coworkers

2. Identify what you have in common.

If you engage from a place of commonality rather than difference, you can more easily build rapport. This doesn’t have to be work related. Do you share a common hobby? Do you both have children? Do you share common goals on the project you’re collaborating on? Focusing on elements that you share can be a powerful way to bring down any walls, so that your communication is on a more personal level, even if you do have different opinions/approaches on specific work issues. 

3. Communicate assuming good intentions.

It’s easy for us to assume the worst, to build up this character in our mind with so many terrible personality traits. However, very few people want to be an a$$hole. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Wouldn’t you want people to do the same for you? If you need to bring up an issue or challenge, treat them the way you want to be treated – with respect. Assume that they want the best possible outcome as well. Focus on the future and the best way to move forward together. Remember: You attract more bees with honey than vinegar.

4. Pause and breathe before reacting.

If your coworker says or does something that’s triggering, this stimulates your fight or flight reaction, and your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Your lizard brain is operating from a survival mode sort of place, and you might say or do something that doesn’t get you the outcome that you desire. In these moments, it’s important to slow down and not react from an emotional place. Notice that you’re triggered and allow the breath to be the pause between stimulus and response. Try the Belly Breath, which will stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system allowing yourself to be calm so you can engage as your best self.  

5. Listen to your body.

Often we might experience the stress of this person as tension in our bodies. The next time you find them getting on your nerves, check in and notice where in your body you are experiencing any sensations. This might be a tightness in the shoulders or the belly. It could be tension in the forehead. Whenever you experience this, observe it without judgment. Then, with intention, on your next exhalation, send the breath to that part of the body. You might also place a hand on that part of the body while taking deep breaths.This is based on a somatic therapy approach, and it works wonders. Give it a try!

6. Ensure that they feel heard.

We all want to feel heard. We want to feel like our opinion matters. Regardless of how much you disagree with what your colleague is sharing, this is yet another opportunity to practice the golden rule of treating others the way you want to be treated. Listen to what they have to say. Repeat it back to them so that they know that you heard them. Don’t forget that your tone says everything. Try to truly understand where they are coming from, what’s causing them to do the things that are bothering you. Maybe there’s a miscommunication. Maybe they are unhappy with something in their lives. You can be the best version of yourself by offering them compassion and respect. 

7. Set Boundaries.

What boundaries can you set that prioritize your wellbeing? Sometimes people may continue to create a toxic work environment no matter what you do. If this is the case, think about what you can do to preserve your energy. You still need to have a productive working relationship, but think about what might help you thrive. Perhaps it’s limiting your interactions, keeping conversations professional, or politely excusing yourself when necessary. Focus on the things that you can control, and think about your own self-care.

Zee Clarke is the author of the book, Black People Breathe (Penguin Random House). She has been featured in many leading publications including ABC, Fortune, Forbes, CNBC, Ebony, Essence, and Fast Company.

She is a Harvard Business School graduate who applies holistic healing practices to corporate environments. Zee leads transformative workshops on mindfulness, breathwork and stress management tools at organizations such as Google, Visa, AMC Networks and more.

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