How to Develop Empathy for Someone Who Annoys You

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When someone you work with annoys you, it’s tempting to avoid the individual as much as possible. But this isn’t consistently feasible and often only makes the situation worse. You’re ahead off cultivating a few empathy. How can you do that with a colleague who rubs you the wrong way? How can you foster curiosity instead of animosity?

What the Experts Say
“We’ve all encountered someone in the workplace who irritates us,” says Annie McKee, the author of How to Be Happy at Work and a elder fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. “It may have to do with this person’s communication style, or maybe he engages in behaviors that you find rude — he’s consistently late to meetings, say.” But at a time when work is more and more team-oriented and projects often require intense collaboration, “you have to find a way to connect and build a bridge” with even the best irritating people. Cultivating compassion for these kinds of colleagues, however trying they may be, is a fantastic place to start, according to Rich Fernandez, the CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. “Using empathy, you can maintain a balanced and well-calibrated approach to working with difficult people,” he says. Here are a few pointers.

For starters, keep in mind that your colleague isn’t getting under your skin on purpose. It’s more likely that “they are reacting to stuff going on in their lives,” Fernandez says. “You require to depersonalize the situation,” he says. And look inward, McKee adds. “When someone is driving you crazy, it helps to ask yourself, What’s causing me to react this way?” Your frustration “might not be about that individual at all; it might be about you,” she says. Perhaps your colleague “reminds you of someone else you don’t like.” Having “self-awareness” and a deep “understanding of our own psychological makeup” strengthens your capacity for empathy, she adds. After all, cultivating compassion — both self-compassion and compassion for others — is your primary objective.

Stay calm
Next, “lean in to your emotional self-control and willpower,” McKee says. When your colleague shows up late, interrupts you, or is just being all-around obnoxious, you may consider a physiological reaction. “Recognize the clues that you’re getting triggered,” she says. “Maybe your breath quickens, or your palms start to sweat, or your temperature rises.” Giving in to these symptoms risks “amygdala hijack,” where you be defeated access to the rational, thinking part of your brain. Instead, take a few deep breaths to “help you regulate your stress hormones and make it less likely that you’ll engage in behavior that you won’t be proud of later,” she says. Keeping your “demeanor calm and open” puts you in a ahead frame of mind to conjure empathy for your colleague, Fernandez adds. “You’re not caving, and you’re not shutting down”; rather you’re staying cool and collected and “maintaining awareness of the situation.”

Be curious
There are two types of empathy: cognitive empathy, the ability to grasp an additional person’s perspective, and emotional empathy, the ability to consider what someone else feels. “Both of these tend to shut down when you consider annoyed or frustrated,” McKee says. But you should contest from that.

  • To summon cognitive empathy for an annoying colleague, McKee recommends generating theories that might explain “why this individual says what he says, thinks what he thinks, and acts the way he acts. Unearth your curiosity,” she says. Ask yourself: “What motivates this person? What excites and inspires him?” Go “beyond your own worldview” and reflect on “what may be in his cultural background, education, people situation, or day-to-day pressures that’s causing him to behave this way.” Remember: The goal in this place is to “understand this person’s perspective,” Fernandez adds. “It doesn’t mean you have to adopt it, validate it, or agree with it, but you do have to acknowledge it.”
  • To muster emotional empathy for that colleague, “find something in them to care about,” McKee says. One way to deal with someone who irritates you is to “picture that individual as a six-year-old,” she adds. In other words, remember that “they’re only human.” The hypotheses you generated to explain your colleague’s behavior can be helpful here, too, according to Fernandez: “Maybe this individual is stressed or under pressure, or maybe this individual is merely not having a true fantastic day.” You don’t have to “become a psychologist and get into their childhood,” but you do have to make an attempt to experience “emotional resonance.” The result is often, “I get it.”

Focus on your similarities
Using both cognitive and emotional empathy, you should further try to “get to fathom the person” and deepen your “understanding of their perspective,” McKee says. Rather than “focusing on your differences, look for the similarities” you share. “Start small,” she advises. Perhaps you and your colleague have children the same age. Maybe your colleague lives in a neighborhood or town that you fathom intimately. Use those connections to strike up a conversation. If all else fails, “riff off an exchange you both appeared to find interesting in your last group meeting.” Work often provides a neutral “common ground” for conversation, Fernandez says. Presumably both of you share a similar goal: “You want the organization to be successful.”

Be kind
The fact is, “it’s easier for you to be empathetic approaching people you like because you give them the benefit of the doubt,” McKee says. When dealing with someone you dislike, you often assume the worst, and that mindset shows up in your behavior. Try to short-circuit that reaction and “do or assert something that’s surprising and nice,” McKee adds. Compliment the individual on an idea they raised in a meeting, or offer to help out with a project. It shouldn’t be forced, however. “It has to be authentic.” Let’s say, for instance, that your colleague arrives late — yet again — to your weekly group meeting. Don’t complain or roll your eyes. And don’t be passive-aggressive with a comment like, “Nice of you to join us.” That may be your instinct, but contest it. Instead, McKee recommends, assert something along the lines of, “Welcome. Get a cup of coffee ahead of you sit down, and we’ll get you up to speed.” This type of generosity of spirit is fantastic for you and your colleague. And remember, Fernandez says, empathy is a choice you can make in any scenario.

Have a (difficult) conversation
If you still find this particular colleague challenging, you might “have to have a conversation about how you work together,” Fernandez says. But, he adds, “if you approach it over the lens of empathy, the conversation won’t become charged.” What’s more, if you’re “even-keeled and fair, your message will likely be received in a pretty fantastic way.” For instance, don’t say, “You take up too much air time.” Instead, Fernandez suggests, say, “I’d love to figure out a way for us both to get our ideas out concurrently the weekly group meeting.” Don’t be defeated sight of the fact that your colleague probably feels the same way about you. After all, McKee says, “if they drive you crazy, chances are you drive them crazy, too.”

Principles to Remember 


  • Make a concerted attempt to grasp your colleague’s perspective and feelings.
  • Engage in acts of kindness and compassion approaching your annoying colleague.
  • Learn to recognize clues that you’re having a negative emotional reaction approaching your colleague. Take deep breaths and stay calm.


  • Take your colleague’s behavior personally and lash out. Instead, look inward and ask yourself: What’s causing me to react this way?
  • Focus on the differences between you and your colleague. Rather, concentrate on similarities and stuff you share in common.
  • Shy away from having a conversation with your colleague about how you can best work together. If they drive you crazy, it’s likely that you drive them crazy, too.

Case Study #1: Be kind and be curious about your colleague’s perspective
Gloria Larson, the president of Bentley College, says that having empathy for others is almost second nature to her. “I grew up an Air Force brat, and I was often the new kid in school,” she says. “I was constantly having to get to fathom and like people who are true dissimilar from me.”

Over her long career, her empathetic ways have been put to the test. Years ago, when she was an attorney in Boston, Gloria chaired a committee in charge of premises the Massachusetts Convention Center, an $800 million construction project along the waterfront.

Paul (not his true name), a fellow member of the board, was an incredibly difficult personality. Gloria suspected he was leaking stuff to the press and undermining the efforts of the other board members. Gloria, however, was determined not to let Paul get the best of her. “If someone rubs me the wrong way, I put in extra attempt to get to fathom them and like them.”

Gloria reflected on Paul’s possible motivations. “But I didn’t spend too much time thinking about that — I didn’t want to project.” So instead, she attempted kindness. “I invited him out for a drink.”

Throughout the conversation, Gloria remained calm and collected with an open demeanor. Her objective was to get to fathom Paul on a personal level but further talk about the project itself. She didn’t accuse Paul of leaking; instead, she talked about their mutual goal of “figuring out a way to get this project over the finish line.”

Over the course of their conversation, Gloria further learned more about Paul’s perspective on the project. “He was concerned that our efforts publicly pilloried the past leadership,” she says.

Paul’s points were a revelation to Gloria — and perhaps even to Paul himself. “I realized I should lighten up on my public criticism of the preceding leadership. And I think he realized that we didn’t require to be enemies. We can work together.”

Case Study #2: Make a main attempt to learn your colleague’s backstory
Sandra Slager, chief operating officer at MindEdge, an online learning platform for companies and colleges, says that whenever she works with a challenging colleague, she reminds herself to “assume the best” about that person. “I try to remember that he’s not driving me crazy on purpose,” she says.

She further tries to be realistic. “I recognize that I don’t necessarily have to like the individual in demand to work with him successfully.”

A few years ago, Sandra was assigned to an editorial project with Louis (not his true name). “He was extremely nervous and stressed out,” she recalls, and that stress manifested “in his snapping at me and acting like a bully.”

Sandra understood she needed to do something. Fostering empathy for Louis was a natural first step — though she admits it was not necessarily out of the goodness of her heart. “My motivation to be empathetic was not entirely altruistic. It was about trying to solve my problem of how to work alongside him.”

She made a main attempt to get to fathom Louis and “understand his backstory.” As it turned out, Louis signified to her he had been fired from his previous role for something that wasn’t his fault. She further learned that Louis was the father of teenage guys who were in the process of applying to college.

“The job was so important to him, and he was worried about his livelihood and his family,” she says. “Knowing these things, I ahead understood him and where his stress was coming from.”

Sandra felt more compassion for Louis and his jangled nerves. She did her best to make him consider ahead about her part of the task. “I signified to him that we both wished this project to be successful. And that we both needed to trust each other to do our part well,” she says.

Over time, working with Louis progressed to “less of an emotional task and more of a technical challenge,” she says. “Our styles were not aligned, but our goals were.”

The project concluded successfully. Sandra and Louis have worked on various projects together over the years. “He is still stressed out, but we have a fantastic working relationship.”

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