Ah, difficult co-workers… We’ve all experienced them. From the Catherines that incessantly spread hurtful gossip to the Marks who backstab and use their Y-chromosome to advance their career faster than those of us with double Xs, each office (and social human group) seems to have its malcontents. If you haven’t ever had any of these trying experiences, I’m jealous of you! Or perhaps you work alone and don’t need this article...
I placed this article within the “family and relationships” category because if you’re working with these people, unpleasant as they may be, you do need to have some sort of professional relationship with them. It’s also been said that as full-time, working adults we spend more of our waking hours with our co-workers than with our actual families. A critique of modern-day capitalism, however, is beyond the scope of this article. So how does one best cope with annoying, unpleasant, or downright malicious co-workers?
First of all, it can be incredibly powerful to use a personal journal to vent angry or hurt feelings into. I frequently encourage my clients to make use of this “expressive arts” modality in our therapy together. Working with a counselor to review your thoughts and feelings will help you to examine whether your reactions to situations are justified or if there are other ways of looking at the issue at hand.
A second technique can be to use assertive communication skills to let the gossiping co-worker know that you aren’t interested in their mean-spirited comments. "I" statements such as “I’m busy right now” or “I’m not comfortable with this topic; I’d prefer we talk about something else” might seem difficult to say at first. Direct, assertive communication does get easier with practice, I swear!
Things that have helped me personally (as suggested to me by a former EAP — Employee Assistance Program counselor) were to use private humor and creativity to defuse tense interpersonal work situations. Envisioning the offending party as a cartoon character (picture that enormous rooster Foghorn Leghorn from Looney Tunes) helped me to see them with less importance. I still strove to do my best level of work as I began to try this new way of thinking. Imagining them as a big, blustering barnyard animal cartoon helped me to take it less personally when they said something foolish or hurtful in my presence.
My former EAP counselor also taught me that I could create a “magical talisman” of sorts to wear strictly at work. This could be a pin, a scarf, or anything that I put on before my shift and take off afterwards. In my case, I created the “TBD,” the Teflon Bullshit Deflector. I have those initials written on the badge I wear every day. None of the office’s bullshit sticks to me; it magically bounces right off! At this point, I’ve worked there longer than most every other therapist, so clearly it’s working!
If none of those strategies work, there is always trying to take your issue to your supervisor, Human Resources, or your Union Representative. Role-playing assertive communication, exploring/imagining how those scenarios might go, and delving into the fears associated with this topic are all things I’m happy to assist my clients with.