Sue France looks at some ways to combat difficult people or situations in the workplace.

Did you know that the number one reason for leaving a job is a ‘mismatch’ between you and your boss or a colleague?

Understanding what is meant

If a boss or colleague is starting to getting irritated, stay calm and ask for clarification. Repeat back to them what you thought they said and also and more importantly repeat back to them what you thought they meant!

Clarifying the point they are making can solve 50% of problems before they get out of hand. Also by not showing emotion yourself and breaking their train of thought before they get too upset or annoyed, your interruption enables them to slow down and focus.

Understanding what is meant rather than just what was said can help improve all relationships.

Dealing with bullies

Typically, bullying is where you feel abused both mentally, physically or verbally. It includes behavior that intimidates, degrades, offends or humiliates you and makes you feel inferior and defenseless.

Keep a note of what the bully is saying and doing which upsets you including date, time, place, situation and even witnesses if appropriate. You may need these when you approach the bully with evidence and if you take your complaint to the grievance procedure.

Sometimes what you perceive as someone with bullying behaviour may just be that they don’t realise how they are being perceived and also do not realise or understand that they are hurting your feelings.

Therefore the first step is to plan where and when you will talk to them, what you will say and how you will say it. You need to clarify the situation and tell the perceived bully what they have done and how it makes you feel and how it affects you, keeping a professional tone and attitude. This conversation should take place in a neutral room (ie not your work area or their work area) with the door closed and let them know you will take notes and write them up and ask them to sign them as a true recording of the meeting (if they don’t want to sign it then sign it yourself and keep it in your files). You cannot simply say “you are a bully and are not being nice”! If necessary you can have a 3rd party present (who has a neutral position).

If you choose to, you can give them a copy of your written recording of previous events and talk them through it with a professional tone of voice and attitude that this behaviour is simply not acceptable for you or anyone else. You should maintain eye contact when you are speaking to them (this does mean ‘staring’). Let them know you mean what you say by your tone of voice, attitude and body language – this should not be or threatening language but assertive. You need to be specific with your examples and what you want the outcome to be. Ask them for their perspective and their point of view to create an open dialogue. Actively listen to what they have to say and validate anything that is legitimate and you agree with.

For example, if, when you are in meetings they tend to talk over you and belittle, tell them you want them to stop interrupting you when you are speaking and to respect what you have to say which should lead to an intelligent discussion and win:win situation. Remember it is about asserting yourself and realising that everybody has rights and you both have the right to be listened to and to try and understand each other’s feelings. Develop a shared understanding of the expectations going forward. You are actually doing the person a favour so they can be more successful and respected by everyone.

If confronting the bully does not help the situation as soon as they behave in a bullying way again, ask to speak to them at that time and then get a third party involved – whether it is your boss, their boss or Human Resources. If necessary you can use your company’s grievance procedure.

If, after trying all the options open to you and there is still no satisfactory outcome and if your performance at work or your health and emotional state are affected it is simply not worth it – you still have one option left and that is to find yourself another job where you are treated with kindness, respect and decency.

Dealing with the ‘controller/micromanager’

If you are working for a ‘controller/micromanager’ boss, try and understand what is at the heart of this – it’s one of two things:

a) It is their natural style of working based on their personality or

b) It is a reaction to the way you are working

Maybe it’s a new relationship and trust needs to be built or maybe they want things done in a certain way that you are currently unaware of making them feel they need to monitor you.

You need to make sure you are aligned on expectations, goals and objectives. They need to know you understand what needs to be delivered and how it should be delivered so they can trust you to deliver what they want in the way they want it.

What is most important is that you continually communicate with each other to establish working patterns that suit both of you and an understanding between the both of you how things should be done. Ask your boss what is working well and what is not working well. You both need to know the rules – it’s about your rules as much as theirs and as long as you both understand each other then the working relationship will improve. Tell the boss what you need to be a motivated and productive assistant and what your parameters or boundaries are as well as ask them for theirs. Talk about what they need to feel comfortable and confident in your abilities. You might need to be bold and give them some tough feedback, for example: “I feel that you don’t trust my abilities to get this work done as you keep standing over me or checking on me – what can I do to put your mind at ease? or “I get the sense you feel the need to check on me frequently and it makes me concerned that you don’t trust me to do the job – is there anything I can do to help this situation”. Hopefully if you talk about the impact that this managerial style has on you then they will let go of some control.

For some people it is challenging to give up control as they might believe they can do it better themselves and in the way they like it done – therefore you have to prove to them that you are well capable and able to get the work done in the allotted time and in the right way for them. In order to gain their trust be transparent and keep them updated regularly on where you are up to so they don’t have to come to you to ask. Eventually they will let go bit by bit of their controlling ways and gaining trust in you and your abilities is the best way to accomplish this and that can only be done by proving yourself.


When you are in a difficult situation or dealing with a difficult or irate person, think before you speak, think about how you should respond – don’t just react!

Remember – “People are much more than just their behaviour” – behaving badly does not make someone a bad person and you need to separate the behaviour from the person. People behave badly when they don’t have the inner resources or ability to behave differently in that instance. It is possible they find themselves in a situation that prevents them from being the best they can be.

Remember to use empathy and realise what is happening in their lives – how much pressure are they under, who is breathing down their neck, what timescales are they working to and remember NOT TO TAKE IT PERSONALLY!

Whatever the situation is or what type of difficult person you are dealing with always remember you have control over your own attitude and you can choose the way you want to react. Quite often when you change your own behavior and the way you react it can bring about change in others.

Sue France FCIPD/INLPTA is passionate about the development of all Assistants, having been one for over 30 years. She has owned her own training company since 2009 working in over 36 countries with thousands of assistants, both face-to-face and virtually ... (Read More)

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