Managing The Difficult Coworker: 6 Benefits of Mindfulness

by | Jul 13, 2019 | Physician Mindfulness

A Mindfulness In Medicine Series by Dr.Gail Gazelle

In this installment of Mindfulness in Medicine – “Managing The Difficult Coworker”, we hear from Dr. J, a family physician in the southwest as Dr. Gazelle offers advice on the benefits of mindfulness at work. Here’s what Dr. J writes:

“I love my job but am thinking of leaving because I can’t stand working with one difficult coworker. She is really impossible, a total piece of work. She gets angry all the time and lashes out at people. When I run into her, she just scowls at me. Just thinking about her, I get this pit in my stomach. I basically arrange my day to try to avoid all contact with her. I wake up thinking about her at night, and she’s making it impossible for me to enjoy my work.  I don’t know what she has against me, but she needs to get over it and start acting like a decent person. She makes me feel tense all the time. Should I look for another job?”

Thank you for writing in about this. It sounds quite stressful. Having an angry coworker is unpleasant for anyone, and you certainly aren’t the first client of mine to have this complaint. Let’s start by defining what success looks like for you in this situation. Is your goal to get your difficult coworker fired? Is it to get along with her? Is it to have less stress in your days and get back to enjoying your job once again? Is it to leave and start doing something else? Give this some thought as it will help guide your next steps.

It sounds like you’re expending a lot of energy in frustration over the way she acts. We can get very caught up in wishful thinking about other people’s behavior and lose sight of the basic truth: the only person we have control over is ourselves. If your goal is decreasing your stress and improving your well-being and happiness, I recommend focusing on the part of this you can control: you and your reaction to her behavior.

With this in mind, let’s look at six mindfulness at work strategies that will help you gain more calm and perspective in the face of this situation.

1. Don’t take this personally

We all see life through the lens of me, myself, and I. When dealing with someone challenging, this leaves us taking someone else’s behavior personally. But, in reality, her behavior is because of her, not because of you. In other words, she is the director, producer, and star of her own show. In many ways, you are simply a bystander in her unfolding drama. Having mindfulness at work helps us see this more clearly and begin to understand that little in life is truly personal. When you embrace this truth, it becomes easier to see that you have a choice about how you respond to her. You can allow her behaviors to cause you stress and loss of sleep, or you can pay attention to your response to her behavior and modulate how you respond.

difficult coworker
difficult co worker Benefits of Mindfulness

2. Consider how this looks through their lens

You’ve said that your difficult coworker seems angry. Do you know anything about what might be going on that’s making her angry? Is there something in the workplace that is upsetting her? Could she be struggling with something major outside of work? This shift in perspective can take you to a place of greater compassion for her. It can also take you to greater curiosity, and both can provide a counterweight to the tendency to judge someone harshly.

3. Begin anew

Often times with stressful situations, we can be very reactive to the people we work with, and conflicts can rapidly escalate. Incorporating mindfulness at work and into daily life and practicing meditation or other mindful exercises, even for a couple minutes a day, can help increase the gap between stressful interactions with this difficult coworker – and responding with distress or anger.

4. Build up your reactivity reserve

One timeworn strategy is to start today as if you have no history with this person. Known as “beginner’s mind” this involves starting with a clean slate. Approach your coworker as if you’re meeting her for the very first time. Think about what you’d say to her. Would you smile? If she scowls in response, would you be curious about what’s going on for her rather than simply labeling her as an angry person? If you’d gotten off on the wrong foot with a coworker, I assume you’d want them to give you a true second chance. Perhaps that realization can guide your actions.

5. Take a time out

Let’s look at how you can minimize your stress. I’ve written previously about the S.T.O.P. protocol and it’s one that can be useful here as well.

  • S: Stop. Pause. Take a mental or physical time-out
  • T: Take 3 slow deep breaths
  • O: Imagine that you’re observe the situation from the stance of a neutral third-party observer. How does it look? Now, infuse the observer with compassion for yourself. How does the situation look now?
  • P: Praise yourself as opposed to blaming yourself. Then, based on what you’ve notice, Proceed.

At a minimum, taking a pause will help you manage the emotions that arise for you relative to your difficult coworker.

difficult coworker mindfulness in medicine

6. If taking action, do so from a place of wisdom

There are times when a coworker’s actions can be so out of line that escalation is required. In these instances, you’ll want to utilize the tips previously mentioned to be sure that your actions are from a calm and balanced place. The last thing that you want to do is lash out or respond with hostility. Engaging in a dialogue with this difficult coworker (or with an HR professional) can be fruitful if the communication stems from a genuine, objective interest in bettering the situation for all parties involved.

Difficult coworkers will always be part of the landscape of our work lives yet there are mindfulness in the workplace tools that can make this easier to manage. Try these 6 strategies this week and see the benefits of mindfulness at work firsthand.

The Mindfulness In Medicine Series

If you’ve missed any of our previous blog posts in this series, here’s a list of them for your convenience.

  1. Embrace uncertainty

When you stop and think about it, uncertainty and change are the only things that are certain. Impermanence is one of the basic laws of our world.

After all, everything changes. Our relationships change. Our kids grow up and change. Our bodies age and change. Our environments change. Our planet changes.

All too often, however, we forget this basic truth. We somehow expect things to be predictable and stable.

The problem is that this expectation sets us up for difficulty. It leaves us struggling unnecessarily when something shifts. It adds a layer of suffering above and beyond that caused by all the VUCA around us.

What I’m getting at is that we have a choice. We can meet uncertainty with reactivity or we can meet it with mindful understanding.

More than meditating on a remote mountainside, mindfulness helps us have the calm, steadiness, and clarity we need to work constructively with all the change and uncertainty.

At the same time, while we can find ourselves resisting change, we can remind ourselves that it does not have to mean something bad! Just take a moment right now to think of all the difficulties you have faced in your life and work that are now resolved and far behind you. This can help you see how change has actually been quite the positive.

  1. Respond to complexity with compassion

Even knowing that change is the only thing that is certain, it can still be difficult to weather. Living in such a VUCA time is difficult. You deserve compassion for managing all the challenges.

With mindful awareness, we can bring ourselves compassion for what we’re going through. There is increasing evidence that self-compassion is a powerful antidote to stress and even burnout. From where I sit, I think that it is actually one of the most powerful medicinals available to us.

  1. Take purposeful pauses

With mindfulness, we are aware of what is going on within and around us. We tune in and pay attention to our experience. We learn to utilize our breath to take us out of the fears, worries, stories, and preoccupations our minds are so good at generating about what might come next, and bring us back to the present moment. Here in the present, we leave that overly activated limbic state and can experience a sense of calm.

A pause also serves to allow our prefrontal cortex to come online. It creates a critically important space between our emotional response and conscious, intentional action.

Once we have paused, we can then see more clearly that fear had taken hold. 

With a pause, we become the witness of our experience as opposed to the one trapped by it.

  1. View VUCA as opportunity

I don’t know about you, but I can find myself reacting to the VUCA environment with something of a fixed mindset. With a fixed mindset, I am telling myself things like ‘it shouldn’t be this way’ and ‘why is this happening?’

When I can utilize mindful awareness, I can see that I’ve boxed myself in with a fixed mindset. I can challenge myself to grow. By grow, I mean challenging myself to see whatever difficulty I’m experiencing as an opportunity to learn.

Here again, mindfulness again throws us a lifeline. Mindful awareness involves leaning into curiosity.

I can flip the script and ask myself:

What can I learn from this experience?

How can I use this to be a better version of myself?

How can I help others cope in this VUCA environment?

What do I want to look back and see about how I acted?

In summary, while VUCA is definitely the order of the day in healthcare and beyond, you don’t have to succumb. You don’t have to live in fear. There are constructive actions you can take to help you cope with uncertainty, build calm in chaos, and even thrive in chaos and VUCA. While we can’t control much that is contributing to the VUCA time, with mindfulness we can control how we respond to it.

I hope you’ll try out these 4 mindfulness strategies as I have seen them help countless people. I’d love to hear how it goes.


To learn more about how mindfulness coaching can help you cope with this VUCA time, please reach out for a complimentary consult.

6 Free Resources To Help You During COVID19 And Beyond.

  1. 14-day meditation series 
  2. Imposter No More PDF
  3. Resilience Book Chapter
  4. Leading In Crisis PDF
  5. Balance To Burnout PDF
  6. 30-minute consult

Take advantage of one or more of these valuable resources created for clinicians and non-clinicians.