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How to deal with difficult people, negative work environments

Who hasn’t had problems dealing with difficult people at work, or had to work in a negative environment at sometime in their career? Did it negatively affect your productivity, or your organization’s productivity? I know I had those problems, yet I survived and ultimately thrived in an environment for 30 years, where people have a hard time imagining a more negative work environment or more difficult people. That place for me was a male prison in Carson City, which housed the only regional medical facility for the sickest (and most difficult) inmates in the state of Nevada.

I straddled the medical world and the correctional world and these are five of the most important lessons I learned the hard way in dealing with difficult people that might help you cope and do well in your work environment.

1. Accept that that there will always be people you find to be "difficult," and concentrate on the common denominator, which is yourself. Unhelpful reactions are heightened if you do not take care of yourself. Value sleep, nutritious food, physical activity and good social connection.

2. Avoid hiring problematic people in the first place, which I consider "prevention." Companies are starting to realize that integrity, a growth mindset and emotional maturity are more important then skills, which can be taught.

3. Practice a step-wise approach. Breathe, and don’t say anything at first. Now you are in more control and can truly listen to them and their issues. Ask constructive questions and put the spotlight back on them. Repeat back what they said and look for a common solution. You will not make enemies unnecessarily, and they will also realize that they can’t push your emotional buttons.

4. Look at difficult interactions as a learning experience. Become curious and empathetic. You don’t always know why people act like they do. Could it be biologic — low sugar or a brain tumor? Psychologic — depressed, addicted? Environmental — an abusive spouse, a loved one dying?

5. If you follow the four steps above and still has problems with a "difficult" person, what should you do? The specific behavior needs to be documented. Don’t gossip. HR needs to become involved where they should have progressive warnings, set specific goals and timeframes. They need to meet regularly with the "difficult" person, outline consequences and take action when necessary.

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