How to work with difficult people

Difficult people come in every conceivable variety; some talk constantly and never listen, while others must always have the last word

Understanding how to properly deal with these people can be especially tricky when they are your coworkers. Photo ©BigStockPhoto.comDifficult people and conflicting situations do exist in the workplace and in our lives, this is a “normal” daily occurrence. Understanding how to properly deal with these people can be especially tricky when they are your coworkers. The method of how to deal with a difficult person and conflict depends on your own confidence level, your personality, and many other factors, such as emotional intelligence, patience level, and empathy.1 It is always important to understand if the person is difficult or if it is the situation and how he or she is handling it.

Difficult people come in every conceivable variety; some talk constantly, never listen, others must always have the last word. Some fail to keep commitments. Others criticize anything they did not create. Difficult team members compete for power, privilege, and the spotlight. Dealing with them is much tougher when they are attacking, criticizing, or undermining your professional contributions or you personally. It is also more challenging if you work in a clinic where the practice manager plays favorites.

Situations like these must be addressed and dealt with immediately or will make the team extremely negative and the environment toxic.2 You can vastly improve the work environment, culture, and morale when you increase your ability to deal with these difficulties and conflicting situations at work. You can also make your workplace a better environment for all team members when you address the problems that a difficult team member(s) are causing for others. Fortunately, in most workplaces, you spend the majority of your days dealing with the normal, everyday people; however, in the event a team member is a difficult or negative person, you’ll need additional skills in your interpersonal skills arsenal.

Common types of difficult people

The bully: According to The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), the definition of workplace bullying is “repeated, harmful mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees; abuse conduct that takes the form of: verbal abuse, physical and nonverbal behaviors that are threatening, intimidating or humiliating, work interference or sabotage, or in some combination.”3 According to the 2017 study done by the WBI, there are 60.3 million U.S. workers affected by workplace bullying, which is equal to the combination population of six states (Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.4)

It is very difficult working alongside a bully. There are many physical, psychological, and mental side effects for a target of a bully. The target may feel intimidated, dread going to work, working near or with the team member, or they also feel dismayed, upset, disgruntled, physically and mentally ill, and many more harmful symptoms. This is all the worse in a veterinary clinic where staff may already be dealing with on-the-job stressors like compassion fatigue. The target is threatened, yelled at, insulted, ridiculed, and continuously mistreated daily. A bully may also talk over you at meetings, criticize your performance, and steal credit for your work.1,5

Negative team members: Some team members thrive on negativity and wallow in their own drama, which becomes toxic over time. They constantly complain about their jobs, the practice, the management, other team members, etc. In their minds, they were mistreated and constantly play victim. Everything they “feel” and/or think is negative, never a positive thought.1,5

Counteracting difficult situations

There are ways to counteract the difficult situations you face daily. Below are a few small steps to help you deal with challenging coworkers.

Overcome your fear of confrontation and conflict. Conflict is a result of human interaction and a part of life. When managed effectively, it can lead to better solutions, problem solving, and building stronger and more respectful relationships. On the flip side, when conflict is handled poorly, it can be destructive to everyone involved. Confronting a team member is never easy; however, it is needed with difficult people, or in a negative or toxic environment. Using the steps can help you become better and more comfortable during a confrontation.1,7

Develop effective work relationships. Many people in a clinic spend more time with coworkers than their family members. Having a respectful, positive workplace and great working relationship helps build a great team atmosphere, which increases the client experience and patient care. Your education, expertise, experience, and titles do not matter if you cannot get along well with your team members. You will not succeed in your work environment without forming positive relationships. Effective relationships can create job success and satisfaction on the job, along with positive experiences for everyone within the workplace.1,7

Tackle annoying team members’ habits and issues. Every team member is unique and comes with many habits and baggage, some may recognize the annoyance level of their habit to others and others may not. Approaching the conversation with empathy and kindness is important in these situations. Understanding the team member is important to understanding their habits and issues.

When a team member has annoying habits to you or others within the workplace, it can cause unnecessary dramas and negativity. You know what a problem and productivity downer these kinds of behavioral and personal concerns can present in the workplace. Remember the team member may have some sensitivities to that particular issue, so you may need to approach it differently to each individual team member.1

Team building with team members. It is important to have a cohesive team within the workplace, especially in veterinary medicine due to the way we work together. The more close-knit the team is, the better the team engagement and job satisfaction. It is natural to want to be respected and liked among others within the workplace and be regarded as a superstar and have allies who have power and will speak up for you. You can achieve job security if you are viewed as a team member by your organization.

Building alliances at work is smart and effective behavior when you want to develop positive relationships with others around you. These alliances are also crucial for dealing with difficult or a destructive team member’s behavior within the workplace. They are also crucial when you want your ideas to be implemented.1

Manage gossip. Gossip is common in most workplaces and is a sign of bullying. It often seems people have nothing better to do than gossip about each other and at times seem to enjoy the activity. Dealing with these difficult situations involving gossip occurs in every workplace and no workplace is without gossip. Knowing how to deal with difficult, negative gossip is a must-do and a can-do, so you have to deal appropriately and remove this destructive gossip from your workplace and your life.1,3  


Having difficult team members or continuous conflict within the workplace requires many difficult, crucial conversations. For most people, holding a difficult conversation about a sensitive topic is challenging. The following steps will help you hold difficult conversations professionally and respectfully. Always remember to document all conversations and review with both parties for resolution of the discussion.7

  1. Practice active listening. Don’t just listen to respond, listen to hear the other person’s thoughts and words.
  2. Stay calm. Anger will lead to more conflict when not controlled. If either party needs a break, take it. This will make the discussion go better and hopefully get resolution.
  3. Don’t judge—the person, the situation, or yourself. This is not the time for the blame game on either side, which will just bring a lot of negativity.
  4. Reflect respect and dignity towards everyone involved. This goes a long way, especially when dealing with emotionally charged events.
  5. Don’t demand compliance. Each person and situation is unique and treating them as that goes a long way to compromise.
  6. Be mindful of verbal and non-verbal communication, especially your facial expressions.
  7. Take accountability for your statements and actions, resolving to do better on your part.
  8. Don’t be the other person’s punching bag or let them take their anger out on you; set boundaries.
  9. Remain flexible. Each situation is unique, knowing one response doesn’t fit all situation and you do not need to be perfect.
  10. After the conversation is over, debrief yourself. Find a trusted individual to discuss with or journal your thoughts of the discussion. After debrief—learn to let it go! Give yourself credit for getting through the difficult situation and know you did the best you could.7

Melissa J. Supernor, LVT, CVT, VTS (SAIM), CFE, CCFP, is founder and president of Educational Advocates for the Veterinary Team (EDAVT), speaking on Internal Medicine, Practice Development, Professional and Career Development topics at local, state, and national levels. She has authored many chapters and articles on many topics. She holds an AS degree in Veterinary Technology, a BS in Psychology, and earned her CVT in 1990 and VTS in Small Animal Internal Medicine in 2008. She is an experienced veterinary technician specialist skilled in veterinary medicine, animal welfare, disaster medicine, and professional and personal development of the veterinary team. She can be reached at 


1 Heathfield, Susan M. 10 Tips for Dealing with People at Work. The Balance Careers, September 2019.

2 Heathfield, Susan M. How to Deal with Difficult People at Work. The Balance Careers, December 2019.

3 Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI);

4 Namie, Gary, PhD. 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute US Workplace Bullying Survey. Workplace Bullying Institute, 2017.

5 Lockhart, William. Difficult People, Foolproof Methods Dealing with Difficult People, Mean People, and Workplace Bullying. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2015.

6 Markway, Barbara, PhD. 20 Expert Tactics for Dealing with Difficult People. Psychology Today, March 2015.

7 Solomon, Muriel. Working with Difficult People, Prentice Hall Press, 2002.

During surgery is not the optimal time to set boundaries with a difficult team member, but that conversation is important.

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