Career Advice English for professional use

Handling difficult colleagues and customers - Part 1

Do you have a colleague that misses every deadline? Had to deal with angry customers with endless complaints? A workmate or manager that criticises your work?

We all have to deal with difficult people in our lives, but how do we handle them while remaining professional at work?  Here are some tips to help you next time you’re faced with a challenging situation.



Whether handling a difficult colleague or customer, the most important thing to do is to listen with your full attention. This can be difficult if the other person has been rude. However, you should always give them a chance to vent and tell you their problem first. This will make them feel as if their problem has been understood.

Show the other person that you’re engaged and understand what they’re saying. Body language can play a key role in making the other person feel heard. Make eye contact and nod your head to show that you’re listening and use short phrases such as ‘OK’, ‘I see’ and ‘Hmmm’ to acknowledge what they’ve said.


Show empathy

Apart from listening to their problem, you can also show that you understand the issue by showing empathy. Imagine you are in the other person’s shoes and try to understand the situation from their perspective. Try to build a rapport with them by using phrases such as:

  • I understand why you’re upset, and I would be too.
  • It sounds like you’re frustrated, and I understand why.
  • I understand, that sounds really difficult.

You could also repeat their concerns back to them to avoid any misunderstanding, for example:

  • As I understand it, you’re quite rightly upset because the delivery arrived late.


Stay calm

Take a few deep breaths and remain calm. This takes a lot of patience and practice, but it’s the best way to remain professional when faced with a difficult situation. Try not to react to what the other person is saying, especially if they’re trying to make you angry. Stay calm so you have clear judgement of the situation and don’t overreact. This way, you won’t escalate the situation or say anything you might regret later.

Remind difficult customers that you’re there to help them.

  • I’m going to do my very best to help you.
  • I’m happy to help you find a solution to this problem.

If you’re finding it hard to remain calm when talking to a workmate, you could try asking these questions:

  • Can I have a bit more time to think this through? I’ll get back to you with an answer later.
  • I have a meeting now. Can we discuss this later?

In Part 2 next week, we’ll look at more ways to diffuse conflict at work while expressing your own opinions.