How can you manage a difficult relationship?

On average, we don’t like one out of every five people we meet so assuming that you should get on with everyone is simply not a reality.

How can you forge productive working relationships in such circumstances? The following three strategies will help you get more control of the situation, freeing you from any historical baggage and allow you create new behavioural patterns.

How are you contributing to the situation?

Look at your interactions with a fresh pair of eyes to see if you’re carrying negative emotion with you. What are your facial expressions signalling – are there hints of impatience, frustration or boredom? What’s the tone of your voice like? How is your eye contact?

How you turn up has a direct impact on what follows. Our sub-conscience picks up non-verbal cues and this is what we use to assess trust and likeability. If you want to reshape the relationship, become aware of your emotions and learn to control them.

Creating space

The amygdala is the most primitive part of the brain where we process strong emotions such as fear and pleasure. In our ancestors time it was vital to our survival; it activated the fight-or-flight response when it saw danger and allowed us to respond to events without thinking. In the modern world however, our brains can’t distinguish between the threat caused by a tiger chasing us and receiving an unwelcome email.

So how can we manage our knee jerk reactions to these perceived threats that so often result in irrational overreactions? By allowing time for the thinking part of our brain to get involved.

The prefrontal cortex is the executive function of your brain and is where thinking, decision-making, and planning happen. It’s where your emotions are processed to determine a rational response. When we feel a sudden surge of emotion and a strong impulse to react immediately, it’s a sign that the amygdala has disabled the prefrontal cortex. Learning to recognise this surge is the key to freedom.

Focus on creating space for yourself by concentrating on your breath. This space will allow the two parts of your brain to work in tandem, putting you back in the driving seat. So the next time somebody gives you a look or says something that triggers you, put yourself in slow motion and pause before reacting.

Who does this person remind you of?

Our subconscious mind works significantly faster than our conscious mind. We instinctively look for patterns to enable us to make decisions faster. This can be a powerful tool but needs to be treated with care as it can lead to us reacting in a biased, unfair fashion.

If you find yourself not warming to a colleague, ask yourself who they remind you of. You may be associating them with somebody from your past with whom you had a negative experience and transferring these same traits on to them.

One of my clients found that she was reacting very negatively towards a new colleague in the company and was struggling to understand why her reaction as so intense. Reflection allowed her to see that the new colleague reminded her of her brother with whom she had a complex relationship. Understanding this unburdened her and allowed her approach the relationship from a completely new perspective.


You won’t get along with everyone, but there is a potential value in each relationship as everybody knows something that you don’t. Look honestly at how you’re contributing to the situation and remind yourself that the only thing you can control is your own behaviour.

It is possible to collaborate effectively with people you don’t like, but you have to take the lead.

About the author

Laura McGrath is an Executive Coach with a background in executive search and career coaching. She has a post graduate qualification in Executive Coaching from the IMI and has been a guest lecturer with Trinity College Dublin and TU Dublin. For more information call 087 669 1192.

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