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“They’re so frustrating!”: How to deal with people you clash with

Coach Alex Taylor by Alex Taylor
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We’ve all faced this issue before. You have a colleague who couldn’t be more different than you. The way they behave, communicate with others, even the way they work. When you work together, it’s like you are on completely different pages.

Before you know it, the words are coming out of your mouth: “He’s such a [insert judgment]. And there you go, they’ve been categorised and measured. You can now move on with your life and try your best at avoiding that person.

We all use judgments. As humans, we split the world into categories to feel comfortable navigating it [4]. You can hear examples of these judgments everyday: “She’s lazy, he’s arrogant, she’s just a pushover, they’re a bunch of naysayers in finance”. It’s far simpler to categorise people and move on rather than trying to understand their motivations.

But what if you took the time to understand the motivations behind their behaviour? Research shows that people work more effectively together when encouraged to understand each other’s perspective [2]. By including and exploring other perspectives, more creative solutions are formed as a result. Teams that are more open and accepting of the differences between its members are more successful overall. This is because they see the value in their differences and use it to drive stronger performance and better results [3].

How can we change the way we approach people who are so different from us? One way of doing it is by assuming positive intent.

Assume positive intent

Indra Nooyi, former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo describes the best advice she received when dealing with people whom you disagree with. She argues to assume positive intent [7]. When you assume positive intent, you work with the assumption that the other person is doing the best they can and that they generally have good intentions. For example, imagine yourself sharing a new and exciting idea with your team and that one of your team members responds by outlining how the idea will not work. One way to approach this is to get angry and assume the other person is being difficult, or negative. Alternatively, you could assume positive intent and ask why the other person thinks this way, you could even go as far as to ask them for advice on how to make it work. In the former, cooperation is prevented and the idea is unlikely to be picked up. However, by taking the time to understand the other person’s perspective you may learn something new, or even build a better idea together.

Dr Brené Brown agrees with this. She argues that the act of assuming people are doing the best they can leads people to discover new ways of working together [1]. When you refrain from judging people negatively, you are more open to solutions that support collaboration.

Tips for assuming positive intent

1. Assume positive intent
Brené Brown suggests an exercise where you write down the name of someone who fills you with:
• frustration
• disappointment
• and/or resentment.

Write down the name of that person before you read on.

Done?… Good.

How would you think differently if I told you that that person is doing the best they can?

One man doing this exercise with Dr. Brown paused and concluded: "....then I'm a total jerk, and I need to stop berating them and start helping them”. Once you assume positive intent, you can start asking questions to find real solutions to problems. Personally, I have found that I am able to move on from difficult experiences more easily when I lead with this mindset.

2. Ask more questions
Don’t assume that you know all the facts, or that your method of working is the best. Be more inquisitive by asking open questions that will help you understand the different perspectives. Having an insight into how other people think will enable you to understand others who think in a similar way, and will help you become more persuasive. By probing and discussing things, you will not only figure out what matters to the people on your team, but also how they can work at their best.

Final comment

To use an everyday example, the next time a colleague says something hurtful, assume that it wasn’t their intention. Although it’s difficult, have a private discussion outlining how they made you feel, and to ask what their intentions were. In the end, working through problems with people who you clash with is an opportunity for personal growth. Teams that make more effort to understand each other’s differences are more likely to channel that conflict in meeting their goals, rather than resulting to personal squabbles [6].

So next time you feel a judgment come bubbling up, think “they are doing the best they can”. You’ll be amazed by how this can free you.


[1] Brown, B. (2015). Rising strong. Random House.

[2] Hoever, I. J., Van Knippenberg, D., Van Ginkel, W. P., & Barkema, H. G. (2012). Fostering team creativity: perspective taking as key to unlocking diversity's potential. Journal of applied psychology, 97(5), 982.

[3] Homan, A. C., Hollenbeck, J. R., Humphrey, S. E., Knippenberg, D. V., Ilgen, D. R., & Van Kleef, G. A. (2008). Facing differences with an open mind: Openness to experience, salience of intragroup differences, and performance of diverse work groups. Academy of Management Journal, 51(6), 1204-1222.

[4] Jenkins, R. (2014). Social identity. Routledge.

[5] Sawhney, V. (2020, October 28). Actually, It's Okay to Disagree with People at Work. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

[6] Sessa, V. I. (1996). Using perspective taking to manage conflict and affect in teams. The Journal of applied behavioral science, 32(1), 101-115.

[7]The best advice I ever got. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

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