How to deal with painful co-workers

This article originally appeared in My body and soul

Getting on well with others matters. It determines our mood, our state of mind and affects our performance. While it’s unrealistic to expect to like everyone we meet, what counts is knowing how to get on well enough, so you can get on with your work without getting side-tracked by your internal narrative and negative emotions.

What is it about that other person that rubs you up the wrong way? Is it the way they speak, or their attitude? But have you noticed that while you’re dealing with your acute state of reactivity they can be completely oblivious to how excruciating they are?

Managing toxic people can be tricky. Much as you may long for the day they get transferred or leave the country, in the interim you’re stuck – and if having to change your role or job isn’t an option then it’s going to be all about managing your level of reactivity. Choose to respond instead.

In any social situation your brain is weighing up whether it’s safe to stick around because there might be something rewarding just around the corner, or whether it’s potentially dangerous.

This was extremely useful to keep us safe during our evolutionary history, which is why the brain’s default setting is to assume Danger! first and ask questions later. When it comes to managing office politics and workplace relationships, staying out of danger begins with recognising your triggers and developing those strategies to keep you safe.

1. Identify what pushes your buttons.

What is it that you dislike about another person’s behaviour? Do you hate people being late? Do you loathe brown-nosers? Do you get upset when someone else takes the credit for your hard work? Remember these triggers might be unique to you and you alone.

2. Decide whether the behaviour is worth responding to.

Does their behaviour affect you directly or is it a conflict of values? Look for ways to reappraise the situation and reduce your level of irritation. Punctuality isn’t everyone’s strong point. If Jimmy’s lateness is impacting the office then it needs to be addressed for everyone’s sake. If it’s only you who gets annoyed and no one else seems to care if Jimmy is always five minutes late – is it a battle worth fighting?

3. Keep things in perspective with early intervention.

Bad behaviour and inappropriate comments are best dealt with when the matter is relatively minor. Suppressing emotion is the worst form of emotional regulation as it intensifies emotions (on both sides) putting you at risk of a volcanic eruption. Acknowledging how you feel and saying it out loud reduces the level of emotional intensity, keeps things in perspective and makes having that difficult conversation easier to manage.

4. Keep your distance.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of the brain used for logic, reasoning, decision-making and regulating our emotional response. Emotions being part of the limbic system are generated extremely fast compared to the somewhat slower and more ponderous PFC. Taking a step back along with a deep breath provides you the space needed for a more measured response.

5. Practice makes perfect.

Developing the regular practice of keeping an open mind, keeping things in perspective and reframing the situation helps us respond not react. Start by giving yourself permission to take regular time out, to relax and chill. Whether you choose Tai Chi, meditation or hanging out with friends, it’s about creating space for yourself, lowering your reactivity and enhancing acceptance of difference.

6. Seek commonality.

We are all human. Finding some point of commonality whether through sport, kids or a shared interest in music can help break down barriers and enhance all of our working relationships.

Dr. Jenny Brockis is the Brain Fitness Doctor specialising in brain health and elevating mental performance and is the author of the best seller Future Brain (Wiley).

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