How to Survive When Challenging People Knock You Off Your Game


No one relishes the thought of meeting the client, colleague or supervisor whose mere mention will become synonymous with pain. However, challenging people (and the situations they create) are a work life fact.

Chances are high that you will encounter one of these individuals along the way. When you’ve landed in a tight spot with someone who just isn’t playing fair — it can feel like a tidal wave of emotions.

Unfortunately, the experience can leave us feeling off balance and not quite like ourselves.

This can become an overwhelming experience.

Feeling undermined or attacked is traumatic and emotions run high. (This is completely normal.) Most of us will immediately formulate an internal counter-attack or argument. However the opportunity for this play out in real life, is often dependent on the existing power dynamic. In some cases, we simply have to process the situation to move through it.

If you are not in the position to openly respond  — or directly defend yourself — you can be left with disturbing after-effects. We might feel a little “hung-over” or dazed. Ultimately, encountering toxic people can affect our ability to thrive in the workplace. This is a real and present danger. So we must address the situation quickly.

Here is a bit of advice to wade through the fall-out:

  • Psychologically separate. The first thing to protect is your work life well-being. This may require applying mindfulness techniques to observe the situation from a safer psychological distance. Most human beings have a powerful response to extreme negative feedback — so ensure that your emotions (and feelings of worth) are not hijacked or destroyed. Think of things this way: What if the situation happened to a friend or co-worker? What advice would you offer them?
  • Seek support. Touch base with a trusted colleague or supervisor to share your experience and gain some perspective. Knowing that you have support, will help your resolve and deter doubts from taking a foothold.
  • Learn from the experience. A post-mortem review might be challenging — especially when you feel you are not at fault. However, reviewing the entire story to identify where things may have gone off the rails (and to revise future strategy) is warranted. Subtle cues can provoke someone who is already difficult to work with. Protect yourself going forward.
  • Exit the battlefield. If you feel your reputation may be at stake, attempt to exit the dynamic entirely. Request another colleague to cover the client or complete unfinished project work. Sometimes, more exposure only breeds more trouble.
  • Focus on resilience-building. Learning strategies that help us bounce back are critical. Protecting our psychological resources should be an ever-present concern. Situations where we feel misunderstood or attacked can have long-standing effects.
  • Give things time. The surprise of the initial shock will fade. However, how you process the experience will matter longer-term. You will change as a contributor — but hopefully you will also emerge wiser, stronger and better prepared.

How have you dealt with unreasonable individuals in your work life? Share your strategies here.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial & Organizational Psychologist. She is a Consulting Psychologist at Allied Talent. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program, her posts on workplace topics have appeared at The Huffington Post, US News & World Report and The World Economic Forum


4 thoughts on “How to Survive When Challenging People Knock You Off Your Game

  1. Nice article. Handling such issues are always very difficult because even if you foresee problem you are not required to mention, others might consider you as negatively charged person for the project or policy.


  2. i was in this sort of situation for almost 10 years. i had a supervisor who belittled me at every opportunity, publicly attacked and denigrated me and my efforts, and in general made my work life a living hell. i had (still have) a family and a mortgage, though, and was an old fart (over 40) who was getting no responses to his job searches, so i had to bear up under it.

    there was at least one time when this person attacked me in front of a colleague from another department, who was floored by the attack. my supervisor recognized that he had gone too far and tried to recover by gushing praise of my knowledge and abilities, but he went too far with it, and it was obvious to all that it was false praise. the colleague who had witnessed the attack later told me that he had seen my supervisor attack others, and that he had actually threatened the job of one man who was close to retirement in order to force him to travel to a dangerous part of the world, and had made him cry. there was some satisfaction in knowing that others recognized that this person was an unfit manager, but i was still trapped. my employer at the time was very dysfunctional and was bleeding cash; at one point, some people in the HR department actually tried some things that were illegal (they were fired). every other department with which i interacted was at least as dysfunctional (obviously including the one for which i worked). fortunately, i eventually left that job.

    there is little that can be done in that type of situation except to leave the job behind when one goes home (and BTW, go home at quitting time!). U have a life, so live it; the moron who torments U can only do that at work. also, remember that if U were truly as bad an employee as his attacks would imply, U would probably have been fired; just being there to take the abuse means that U are *not* that bad. finally, throughout my career, i have often worked on projects at home, so i stopped donating free work to the organization that was tormenting me. the Company had decided that this person should supervise my work, so i let this sick organization continue to suffer with as little help from me as possible. this is *not* a professional attitude, but my health was beginning to suffer, so giving the Company exactly what it wanted from me – and *nothing more* – was a fair trade.


  3. For me, the strongest support has been my strong belief in myself and thereby distinguishing the difference between constructive critisam and ill-willed negative feedback tailored to put you off-track. Understanding the miscreant, who may be your boss, a senior colleague or peer, is very important in this context. In particular, behaviour indicative of the dark triad and deal with them accordingly.
    Handling difficult people becomes comparitively easier once you become clear of who exactly you are up against. Consider that as a diagnosis of the problem. What is left is to treat or cure it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s