How to Survive When Challenging People Try to Knock You Off Your Game

Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash

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 — and 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 be overwhelming.

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

There are few work life situations more challenging. You must gather your internal resources and leave with your self image intact.

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 “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 completely 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, manager or mentor to share your experience and gain some perspective. Knowing that you have support, will help your resolve and deter deep 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 inform 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 and HR strategist. 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 Try to Knock You Off Your Game

  1. Great article. Not much more I can add. It is good to see that I did similar things to what you suggest. Thank you for sharing!


  2. I am experiencing this right now after 20 plus years in the mental health field. There are actually supervisors who want to see you fail. It could be due to jealousy or their own insecurities but it feels awful and I have tried all of the necessary avenues to no avail. Thank you


  3. The most important thing to realize is it’s not your fault. What’s going on has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the person ‘gaslighting’ you. That’s when someone sets out to make you feel as if you are a bad employee when you aren’t. Once you separate the personal from the professional, it’s almost ‘easy.’ Because at that point you can look into your rights and the laws – negotiate as big a severance package as you can. And never quit otherwise you can’t collect unemployment. Or negotiate with them not to fight unemployment.
    Bottom line, stay as long as you can, know your rights, let them fire you. Don’t quit. And keep all personal out of it. You’re a professional.


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