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Here’s How To Get Along With Your Most Annoying Coworker

Here are a few tricks–some mental, others behavioral–to improve interactions with aggravating colleagues you can’t avoid.

Here’s How To Get Along With Your Most Annoying Coworker
[Photo: XiXinXing/iStock]

That’s him. You see him coming up the hallway and feel your jaw clenching. You wish you were wrapped some kind of invisibility cloak that would allow you to pass by unnoticed. But instead you flash a terse smile and chirp, “Oh hey, Nate.” Just getting an email from the guy can set your teeth on edge. Unfortunately, this is your coworker–someone you work closely with and simply can’t avoid.

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So what can you do about it? Well, a few things. Unfortunately, none of these suggestions are guaranteed to work–anyone who’s dealt with an aggravating colleague knows that the only real solution is to stop working with them completely–but they can help you reframe your relationship in order to make it more tolerable. Here’s what to do.

Put Your Finger On What Bugs You About Them

The first thing you have to do is to try and isolate what’s really bothering you about your coworker. That may be harder than it sounds, especially if you’ve reached the point where just seeing this person gets you going. Take a step back from your reaction and how your coworker makes you feel, and think instead about actions and behaviors: What do this person do that gets you all worked up?

Maybe they’re always trying to micromanage your work while also doing their own at the same time. So every time you see him, you’re mentally preparing to be told what to do and how to do it. Next, ask yourself why that bothers you so much? “Because it’s annoying!” is the only wrong answer–get more specific. Probably it’s because that makes you feel like you’re not being treated as somebody who’s competent; it makes you feel condescended to.

But here’s the thing: You don’t actually know why your colleague micromanages you. Maybe he has his own anxieties, and it makes him feel better to know that he understands your job. What you do know is that you actually are quite capable of doing your own job without his unsolicited input. So since your coworker isn’t your supervisor, his opinion doesn’t really affect you.

The point is that once you identify the thing that bugs you about your colleague’s behavior, you’re better able to see that this behavior is annoying but not malicious. So it may not be worth getting so frustrated about.

Try A New Vantage Point

If you’re still having trouble getting comfortable with your annoying colleague, you might try looking at the workplace from your colleague’s perspective for a while. There are a few benefits to this shift in view.

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First, you might see other justifications for your coworker’s grating behavior. Maybe she’s a recent grad and doesn’t accept blame for her mistakes. It might bother you that even small errors like forgetting to return a borrowed stapler are met with an excuse rather than an apology. But when you look at the world from her perspective, you might remember this is her first real job. Probably she just wants to be seen as being competent and mature, and making a silly mistake like forgetting to return a stapler may feel much bigger to her than it does to you. So it might be worth being a little more welcoming than just bristling at her inability to apologize.

And second, you might be able to see how your own actions may contribute to the problem. Maybe your frustrating colleague is reacting to the way you interact with her. Is there something you might be doing that’s creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? You expect your colleague to be annoying, and so you inadvertently bring about the behavior you fear.

Play Better Offense

From here, you may be able to seize control over your interactions. Often when you have an annoying colleague, you just sit there waiting for that person to do the thing that bothers you. But you don’t necessarily need to give them that chance to push your buttons all the time.

Suppose you have a new coworker who’s negative about everything. He complains about his commute, his workload, and even the coffee in the break room. Just once, you wish he would say something nice. So the next time you see him coming down the hall, smile broadly and comment on what a beautiful day it is, how much fun you’re having with your current project, and how nice it is to see him. By guiding the conversation in a better direction, you’re preempting the negative interaction you really don’t want to have.

An important reason why this can work is that it puts the situation back into your hands. The most frustrating situations in life are the ones where circumstances control you (what psychologists call an “external locus of control”), rather than the other way around. That’s why a sudden, unexpected traffic jam can make you go berserk. There’s nothing you can do about it, and so you just sit and seethe.

So instead, you’re establishing an “internal locus of control” by making the first move with your irritating coworker. You’re deciding the way the interaction goes, which will make the situation far more comfortable for you. And if you do that often enough, you might even create better habits among your most annoying coworkers–coaxing them to treat you the way you treat them.