Early Career

Dealing with difficult people


Dealing with difficult people is not a new problem. As long as there are at least two people, the potential for conflict will arise. Unfortunately, the workplace or hospital is not immune from tragedies that are born out of poor conflict resolution. Before we go further, please do not ignore the fact that more than 1 million workers are assaulted each year, and more than 60% of Americans are aware of some type of abusive conduct occurring on the job.

Dr. Rhonda A. Cole, associate section chief, gastroenterology, and chief, GI endoscopy, Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center; and associate professor, internal medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston

Dr. Rhonda A. Cole

Who are those difficult people we may encounter? Anyone and everyone. Difficult people may include our significant others, family members, supervisors, department chairs, colleagues, competitors, trainees, patients and their families, and ancillary personnel. Looking at this list, it is amazing that we aren’t either stymied by never-ending conflict resolution seminars, or rendered completely ineffective in all aspects of life. Daily conflicts can vary in intensity and degree. At one end one can be disgruntled at the person who secured the last doughnut in the break room, and at the other extreme end one is committed to moving forward with a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the company.

Conflicts arise because of a multiplicity of reasons – work style differences, background differences, attitude difference, personality types, and competitive versus cooperative differences. To be effective, each of us must realize that we are more alike than different, and it is our differences that should fuel our passion for providing excellent patient care and customer service.

In particular, be aware of things that can accelerate the potential for conflicts – performance ratings, evaluations, recommendation for promotion, absence of role models or mentors, lack of support amongst colleagues, and failures on the part of leadership to keep promises, appreciate people, maintain personal integrity, or take responsibility for their own errors.

When conflict arises – deal with it! Identify the problem, and if it is legitimate address it as soon as possible. Always remember to document the details in writing; never forget the old adage most of us learned during training: “If it’s not written/documented it wasn’t done or didn’t happen.” More than likely you won’t need to retrieve your written documents concerning a particular conflict, but if the conflict escalates, this type of documentation will prove invaluable.

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