Dear Matt: What’s the best way to handle difficult co-workers?

Matt says: Every workplace has a mix of personalities and getting along with everyone is not easy. In a recent Robert Half Finance & Accounting survey, chief financial officers said the greatest challenge for finance and accounting professionals is learning to interact with a variety of personalities. “Difficult people get the better of us by frustrating, exasperating, upsetting and on occasion infuriating us,” says Mark Goulston, author of “Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life”. Goulston recommends this “three strikes and you’re calm” approach:

1. Think of the first thing you want to say or do in response to a difficult person, which is about defending or protecting yourself. Don’t do it, take a breath and exhale.

2. Then think of the second thing you want to say or do, which is about retaliating. Don’t do that, take a breath and exhale.

3. And finally think of the third thing you want to do, which is about finding a solution, and do that.

“Unless you are dealing with a truly evil person, assume that nothing is going right in the person’s life and they have chosen this interaction with you to displace all their frustration,” says Goulston.

Paul McDonald, senior executive director for Robert Half, says it’s important for co-workers to find ways to support each other, even if you don’t all agree. “A little empathy can go a long way to promoting goodwill and fostering a positive work environment for everyone,” says McDonald, who offers these tips:

Build bridges. The person you call out publicly in a budget meeting could be the one you need to sign off on an expense request next week. Instead of burning bridges, try to understand the pressures your colleagues may be facing in their own jobs.

Make sure everyone has a voice. Meet frequently with team members and be sure to ask less vocal colleagues for their opinions so everyone has a chance to chime in. Get to know employees in various departments.

Don’t put off the inevitable. Avoiding confrontation doesn’t address the root of a problem or foster collaboration. Take the time to resolve work conflicts peacefully. During these conversations, listen as much as you talk.

Skip the silo mentality. Companies that readily share information across departments tend to see greater efficiencies and higher staff morale. Providing others with insight into processes also helps them understand the time or resources needed for various cross-department initiatives.

Put yourself out there. Spend time with colleagues outside your department to strengthen relationships at work. Chat at company gatherings or invite co-workers from other departments to lunch to get to know them better.

Contact Matt at jobslink@startribune.com.