Among the benefits of the great work-from-home experiment of the past few years was somewhat of a reprieve from annoying˜ coworkers at the office. Sure, they were still there, but it’s easier to manage communication and interaction through virtual means than it is when they’re in the cubicle next to you.
Now that more companies are expecting workers back at the office, at least part of the week, those exasperating fellow employees are likely going to be there, too. But, fear not, experts say: There are some ways to not only cope, but perhaps even get to the heart of what makes them so tough to take—and make it better.
START WITH CURIOSITY
Before you cringe too hard about your troublesome coworker, take a beat and get curious about your reactions to them, suggests Michele Williams, professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business. Ask questions and think about why the individual thinks or acts the way they do. Instead of responding negatively or with anger the individual, try getting more information about their views or suggestions, she says. Statements like “It’s interesting that you think we should approach it this way,” or “Can tell me more about your logic. Tell me more about how you’re thinking.”
“Sometimes we make the judgment that other people are not intelligent or not logical, but they’re just coming from a different set of assumptions,” she says. That may help you better understand the other person.
FIGURE OUT YOUR TRIGGERS
Clinical psychologist Scott Lyons, PhD, author ofAddicted to Drama: Healing Dependency on Crisis and Chaos in Yourself and Others, says it’s also important to look at why this person gets on your nerves. “I like to start with accountability,” he says. That means checking your own biases, feelings, and attitudes. “Sometimes we can get so focused on the other person and their behaviors, and what they’re doing without recognizing our own psychological contribution to the issue, or the conflict intention,” he says.
Such insight can also help you work toward a solution. For example, if realize that someone rubs you the wrong way because they remind you of your sister—an issue called “sibling transference”—that’s something you need to work on. However, if you don’t like the person because they’re chronically late and that’s one of your pet peeves, you can perhaps have a conversation about the issue or find other solutions.
REINFORCE YOUR BOUNDARIES
While a good look in the mirror can sometimes lead to solutions, you also need to protect yourself from annoying or just plain bad behavior from coworkers. Reinforcing your boundaries can help, says clinical psychologist Lauren Cook, PhD, founder of Heartship Psychological Services and creator ofThe Boardroom Brain podcast. Think about the conditions you need to work and then work on creating that space, she says. “We’re seeing more research on how open floor plans often don’t benefit peoples’ psyches,” she says.
So, use physical markers like earbuds and signage to let people know when you need to focus and shouldn’t be disturbed. If you can, pick a workspace a little farther away from your coworker. And resist the urge to be “nice” to the detriment of your well-being. “Sometimes, we can really struggle with people-pleasing,” she says. “But when you find that people are invading your space, or you kind of feel taken advantage of, it’s really important that you take your time for yourself.”
WORK ON DE-ESCALATING SITUATIONS
Lyons says there are also ways to de-escalate tense situations that may work with annoying coworkers. Reframing is an attention-shifting technique that can help us feel differently about someone and even help us empathize with them. People can be challenging, he says. We come from different backgrounds and experiences that may influence how we engage with others. “I wouldn’t care if you were five minutes late. But for some people that feels like a threat to their values system,” he says. If they think you don’t respect them or value their time, that may cause tension.
Sometimes, you can get to the heart of the issue with direct communication, he adds. “Direct communication does not mean going after someone and just telling them to stop their behavior,” he says. Instead, use curiosity and vulnerability. Approaching the issue by noting the tension and finding common ground can be effective, saying something like, “Hey, I noticed there’s a little bit of tension between us. This might be a story that I had, but I want to check in with you,” he suggests. You may also share how a behavior makes you feel. (e.g., “When you show up late, it makes me feel really stressed. And I’m not always sure what to do with that.”) Such exchanges leave room for someone to participate in the conversation and share their feelings.
REMEMBER THAT YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE BFFS
While much has been written about the importance of having friends or, at least, warm relationships at work and how connection helps employees be more engaged, you don’t have to be friends with everyone, says Jared Pope, founder and CEO of Work Shield, which helps companies manage workplace harassment issues. Sometimes, personalities clash and people have trouble getting along. Adjust your expectations about certain relationships, he says, and remember “you’re there for business.” At the same time, avoid labeling people as “toxic” or “difficult,” as that can get in the way of attempts to make the relationship better. If the behavior goes beyond annoying and into abusive or disruptive, it may be time to involve a manager or even HR.