How to work with someone you dislike?
August 14, 2020 9:10 PM   Subscribe

I've come to strongly dislike one of my co-workers. How can I be professional, yet keep my distance? (And stop thinking about how much I dislike them??)

I don't want to go into too many details, but I have a co-worker that I find it hard to difficult with. We rarely have to work together, which I'm thankful for. However, we do share an office area together, so I do have to be around her for a significant amount of time.

What bothers me the most about her is that she's, basically, a bully. Now, she hasn't bullied me yet, but I'm worried that it's only a matter of time until I end up in her crosshairs. She is someone who wants to argue about everything. It has to be her way or the highway. If you disagree with her about anything she has a tantrum. It doesn't help that she also thinks covid is bullshit, doesn't want to wear a mask, etc. has a plethora of opinions like that, which she constantly has to share with everyone. At all times. We must all know how much she hates wearing a mask. We must always know that she thinks covid is bullshit. We must always know how much she hates Coworker A. It just never ends.

She was on leave for a little bit and working without her presence was so, so, so, so nice. Now she's back and it feels like all the oxygen has been sucked out of the office. I've been trying to work in other areas of work (i.e. doing a project in the empty boardroom), but I can't keep working in different places at work.

I have to figure out a way to be around her and not feel... consumed by my dislike for her? I really just want to figure out how to minimize my interactions with her, which is difficult because we do share an office space. Can I limit my interactions with her to "hi" and "bye" and be done with it? I have never felt such a strong repulsion towards someone in my life.
posted by VirginiaPlain to Human Relations (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
it sounds like she appreciates stirring up drama. think of ignoring it as your best revenge-- you're not giving her what she wants.
posted by hollisimo at 9:20 PM on August 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Headphones. 100%.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:48 PM on August 14, 2020 [7 favorites]

She sounds like a nightmare. I’m so sorry you have to work with someone like this!

Definitely headphones if that’s feasible. But if not:

When I must interact with someone like this, I’ve found it useful to be as bland as humanly possible. When the person engages with me, I do engage back—so they can’t declare triumphantly, “Ha! Trying to ignore me, are you?” and get fixated on that. I just limit my remarks to the dullest ones I can think of. The other person usually gets fed up with my boringness because they really want either an argument or validation of their ragey opinions, but my inane, noncommittal responses provide neither. So they get bored and go off in search of someone more interesting.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:11 AM on August 15, 2020 [39 favorites]

Hurdy Gurdy girl has it, grey rock her all the way. This person sounds like she thrives off drama. Once she realises you’re not going to bite and you’re no fun, she’ll try it on someone else instead. Just do the bare minimum of interaction that you can get away with without being rude and don’t tell her anything personal about yourself that she can latch onto. Good luck.
posted by Jubey at 1:01 AM on August 15, 2020 [13 favorites]

This is someone else's two year old. Yes, very disturbing when they go off loudly when you are trying to concentrate and sometimes even hazardous what with their inability to control their behavior as you can get splashed with mud or have a sidewalk coaster bike smash into your knees, but still just a two year old and still not your two-year-old.

This loud bundle of whine, tantrum, protest and demand is your boss's two year old. There is a not insignificant chance this child was withdrawn from the park briefly on a time out which is why they were absent for awhile no matter what you were told, as a cover story is the usual was of protecting employee privacy in cases like these. But that is up to the parents and family of this poor lamb. For you, not interfering in their parenting, and kindly patronizing behavior is the way to go.

This person has no filters and no censor and behaves very unprofessionally, but it would be unkind to embarrass her about it. Brief gentle agreement with whatever part of her statements you can agree with, while making it clear that you are itching to go back to work is the way to go. Deflect. If she says, "Coworker A is the worst and I hate her!" simply nod, smile faintly and sympathetically and redirect. "Most upsetting. (response is a phrase not a full sentence.) Boss needs me to get these reports edited."

Keep in mind how your boss would like you to handle this. Your boss does not want you to argue with a cranky two year old, nor to become her shrink and encourage her to go into rumination loops, or to waste your own time being distracted by her. If she insists on ranting at you, deflect her at the boss. "You should probably discuss that with the boss if it's interfering with your ability to work." "Boss will make that decision." "Go ask Mommy to help you."

Consider how miserable she must be while living in her own head and while going through those rants. Too much emotion, no ability to damp it down, poor self control. Very hard on everyone who works with her, and so hard on her poor boss (some kids are a real handful) but also exhausting and alienating for the two year old who is flipping out over not getting to use the red crayon first. On some level she has to know her rants make people not respect her but the drama in her head is so big she can't stop herself. And there is a not insignificant chance she's under disciplinary review and has to meet a behavior metric or she won't allowed to keep coming to your pre-school...
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:26 AM on August 15, 2020 [9 favorites]

Check out the Library Employee Support Network on Facebook, which may be helpful in terms of the particular workplace dynamics of libraries. (I do not know why so many libraries foster really toxic personal dynamics, except that I've tended to have incredibly conflict-avoidant managers who would much rather let a bully have their way than do anything about it.)

Aside from that, I second that you need responses that make you really hard to argue with. The book "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense" has some good ideas, but for me there's not much that beats "hmm" said in a sympathetic and understanding voice, when I have trouble thinking on my feet. (Vary with "Huh," "Yeah," "That's rough," as necessary.) Don't freeze her out when it comes to necessary workplace communication - but if it's just venting, by all means.

But I would suggest, the next time she starts venting about Coworker A, that you say very gently, "I'm not comfortable hearing that about a coworker, I think that's a conversation you need to have with [supervisor]." Because that's a conversation that A might overhear, and you don't want to be a part of that.
posted by Jeanne at 6:54 AM on August 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

Bullies are opportunistic. They like people they perceive as weak or injured. I'm usually fine, but during periods of depression have been bullied to the level of abuse because I had few defenses. Never reveal weakness. Be overtly friendly and open Weekend? It was stellar, boating with pals; how was *your* weekend? and always turn the conversation so she's telling you about herself; Narcissism and bullying go hand in hand. Don't be self-deprecating; any casual remark will be stored up for later use. In fact, brag just a little, always elevate your work. If Bully comes at you, learn some phrases and skills. It's a huge drag to have to play games, but bullies make the office a battlefield.
posted by theora55 at 7:53 AM on August 15, 2020 [13 favorites]

Feelings of strong repulsion towards another person, I find, are usually because something about them reminds you about a part you don’t like about yourself, or something about them is activating a part that you feel unable to express.

Do you perhaps feel like you “have to” agree with everything, or feel like it’s good to work with people without sharing your opinions? Do you perhaps feel like your own opinions don’t easily take precedence or don’t often get to be heard?

I’m sharing this because I think it’s quite helpful to understand where my self is coming from, without externalizing my feelings and imagining them to be a quality of another person. It might help you to understand what exactly bothers you.

And in addition, would recommend practice asking questions as a response to reflect / focus on them; if they rant about a coworker, you could say “sounds like you’re bothered by it?”
posted by suedehead at 10:50 AM on August 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

I echo all of the advice to engage with her as little as possible.

When I’ve had to deal with someone whose behavior bothers me, I try to view the behavior as the symptom of a medical condition instead of general crappiness.

Imagine instead of terrible bullying behavior, she had a condition that caused to her have constant, malodorous flatulence. It wouldn’t be pleasant to be around, but your feelings around the annoyance it causes you would be mitigated by sympathy toward her condition. You might detest the odor but feel bad that she has to live with this condition that causes her to leave a smelly trail everywhere she goes.

Similarly, her bullying behavior is likely the symptom or coping mechanism of a terrible past or present trauma. She may be living with constant pain and internal strife that she doesn’t know how to extricate herself from. In a desperate attempt to feel a shred of self worth, she spews bullying behavior everywhere she goes which creates a sad cycle of driving away people who may bring love and support to her life.

Try to reframe her bullying as chronic flatulence and sympathize with her sadness and humanity.
posted by defreckled at 11:07 AM on August 15, 2020 [3 favorites]

The last time I had a co-worker I couldn’t stand I made myself find three things to like (ok, like is a strong word, let’s say “not loathe”) about her every time I dealt with her.

Mind you - your co-worker sounds atrocious. But this trick helped me spend less time thinking about what I disliked about mine because instead of watching and listening for her to do or say something awful I was actively engaged in trying to find her good points.

It didn’t change her at all of course, but that wasn’t in my power. All I could change was me. 🙂❤️
posted by hilaryjade at 11:24 AM on August 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

I was seated in the cubical next to someone like this several years ago and I asked my supervisor if I could move elsewhere. My super told me that co-worker had been talked to before about her behavior. Co-worker was gossipy but also sighed deeply throughout each day and would make a gun shooting sound after getting off the phone with people (like she was going to kill herself). I became very depressed sitting near her and wasn't allowed to wear headphones. I supposed I could have spoken to my co-worker about her behavior but didn't see that it would make the situation better. Knowing her she might have gotten other co-workers to turn against me if I'd addressed her in any way critically. I'd try the civil approach first and wear earplugs if necessary, first. And try to manage your negative thinking about her by focusing on positive things about your job or social life.
posted by DixieBaby at 1:54 PM on August 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Along with everyone else's great ideas, I would try to never be in a one-on-one meeting with this coworker. If you have to engage, do with it someone else (preferably her superior) in the room.

Bullies pick and choose when they act up.
posted by cowlick at 4:54 PM on August 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Jeanne has some good ideas above. The best tactic I have found is giving as little feedback as possible while not totally ignoring it. Something like absent-minded acknowledgment to most things - keep it short, benign and boring. She wants attention and reactions, so your goal is to establish with her that she's not going to get what she's looking for from you without pissing her off so you become a target. Eventually, she'll find your response unsatisfying and stop trying.
posted by amycup at 5:05 PM on August 15, 2020

Report her to HR for repeatedly telling people Covid is not real, creating an unsafe environment. HR will talk to her without revealing your name, and she will not talk as freely in the future.
posted by xammerboy at 9:24 PM on August 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

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