4 Tips on Developing Empathy for Someone Who Irritates You

People who are five minutes late to every meeting. People who keep meetings five minutes longer without regard for others' schedules. People who don't include a conference call-in number to meetings. People who reply-all unnecessarily in emails. That person who never says anything at meetings. That person who talks too much at meetings. The list, unfortunately, goes on and on—irritating tendencies of your colleagues.

People don't always have the luxury of liking everyone they work with, and that's mostly okay. However, when we share a workplace or a project with someone who really gets on our nerves, how do we deal? We can't avoid them entirely, nor can we give them a piece of our mind, as both of those options impact our own progress and personal brand at work.  

First things first. Why do these small things bother us so much?

Whether we can admit it or not, we often get annoyed by people who don't act the way WE would act. Similarly, it's hard for us to immediately rationalize what our colleagues were feeling and thinking at the moment of irritation. The three main psychological systems: behavior (how we act), emotion (how we feel), and cognition (how we think) are all hard to make sense of when they're not our own actions, thoughts, and feelings. We go about the world generally assuming people think, feel, and act the way WE would. So when that proves itself wrong, we get irritated.

Do any of the following phrases sound familiar?

  • "What was he thinking? I would never have said that to a customer."
  • "Does she even realize that she's the only one talking, and no one else can get a word in?"
  • "Why does he tap his keyboard so loudly? No one else does it that way."
  • "No one else talks about their kids as much as she does. It's incessant."

To help alleviate these annoyances, we need to find a way to transform our irritation and possible antagonism into empathy. Having empathy for this person might seem impossible, but it is a great first step that just might help turn the situation around. It all starts with some honest self-reflection.

What actually is empathy? (And what's not empathy?)

Empathy is the ability to be aware of, understand, and/or recognize how others feel and think.   Simply put, empathetic people care about others. They show interest in others. The most basic and powerful way to show true empathy is to listen—really listen—to someone.  

Empathy is NOT about any of the following:

  • Agreeing with what the other person is saying
  • Liking what the other person is saying
  • Being "nice" to the other person regardless of their actions and words
  • Giving advice
  • Helping someone solve a problem
  • Giving sympathy (aka "feeling bad" for him/her)
  • Cheerleading ("you did a great job" or "keep it up, your big break is coming soon!")
  • Minimizing (saying something like "don’t worry, it will all be fine" or "it wasn't that bad")
  • Wanting to change people ("why don't you try [this] instead")

Please note, I am not suggesting any of the above actions are "bad" or not useful. In fact, a lot of these come in handy in our day-to-day relationships. But at their core, none of them actually exhibit empathy by definition.

So, what can we do?

Keep in mind, those colleagues who tend to drive us a little crazy probably have no idea they are doing so. In most cases, they certainly aren't doing it specifically to tick us off. In truth, we usually have little to no idea what is going on in their lives outside of work. Their behaviors could be a response to stressors, learned behaviors, or misinformation that we know nothing about.

As for your own part in it, it's necessary to dig deep to gain some understanding of your own responses. Here are some ideas:

1. Treat the situation like a puzzle, not a problem. 

This is a mindset shift that takes some time to practice. The shift is one from "fixing a problem" or"getting the person to change" to one of curiosity. Another way to think of it is a shift from thinking about something as right or wrong to one of just recognition of 'what is'. Some reflective questions I suggest:

  • What could be going on in their team / department / life that would lead them to act that way? For example, they may be under a deadline pressure you know nothing about, they might have an ineffective manager, they might be stressed about a new process they need to adhere to, or they might have recently lost a team member.
  • What kinds of circumstances might have "set them up" for feeling or thinking that way? Perhaps the person is new and in his/her past roles, this way of thinking was totally normal. Or maybe they have a new baby at home and they're not getting enough sleep. Perhaps they're dealing with an aging parent. Perhaps they are particularly stressed about this project because a bonus is riding on his/her performance.
  • What benefit might they be getting from acting this way? Many people 'act out' at work because they may crave recognition or attention. Maybe they are acting quiet because they recently 'got burned' for saying something at a prior meeting. Maybe they're struggling with a recent work change, and they're acting out by resisting any other changes with powerful negativity.

2. Reverse the empathy.

Have you "been there" before? This exercise is designed to help us reflect on our own lives, our own careers. We've all had ineffective managers, fought with a spouse, missed a train, lost an email, had an unreasonable deadline, been clumsy with a new tool or software, been caught off guard by a customer. Try to think about a time when you were in a similar situation. How did you act / feel / think?

3. Go one level deeper.

This is my personal favorite. When you feel irritated, ask yourself "why am I really reacting this way?" If you are honest enough with yourself, you might find yourself answering something like this: I am reacting this way because...

  • "I value [timeliness] and she tends to value [thoroughness] instead"
  • "I assumed [he had time to go through the details prior]" or "Because I assumed [he knew the marketing team's process for submitting work]"
  • "I am really, really [tired / bored / stressed about something else completely unrelated]"

4. Focus on similarities.

This technique is more of an active dialogue exercise than a reflective or personal one. Once the heat of the moment has passed, perhaps asking your irritating colleague: "what CAN we agree on?" or "what ARE we aligned on?"—or possibly "what might we have in common here?" Often, these types of questions transition you from a problem-phase to a solution-phase.

Above all, keep an open mind and try not to let the stress of the irritating behavior take over. It is admittedly difficult, and it takes intentional practice. This practice will put you in a better position to empathize with your colleague without giving in, shutting down, or feeding the exchange with negative energy.

Empathy is a choice that you must make—so make the intentional choice to try these exercises every time you feel irritation coming on. By showing kindness and understanding to your colleagues—even the really annoying ones—our days can be less stressful and may even be pleasant when you least expect it.

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Lauren C. Miller | Guest Contributor
About the Author
Lauren C. Miller, Guest Contributor

With broad experience in Organizational Effectiveness, Leadership Development, and Experience/Service Design, Lauren is a consultant-coach with a diverse clientele: different industries, team makeups, tenures, and global locations. Despite (or perhaps, because of) this diversity, Lauren is most intrigued by the similarities of our human experience in the workplace. Currently, Lauren is a Leadership Coach and Faculty at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business and Integrated Innovation Institute. Outside of that work, Lauren is an Executive Coach to leaders at all levels and industries: from first-time managers all the way to seasoned executives. She also consults, writes, and speaks about leadership and team development.