difficult colleagues

When you are a beloved employee's replacement

August 2, 2012: 11:25 AM ET

Stepping in for a departed employee everyone loved is a tough act to follow. But, says an executive coach, you can overcome your new peers' resistance.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I recently started a new job in the small communications department of a big company. I'm happy to be here, but there's just one problem. The person who had this job before me was extremely well-liked and left behind some hard-core loyalists, including the person I share office space with. I'll call her Q. So far, Q has gone out of her way to undermine me. For instance, she has played dumb on tasks she would ordinarily be responsible for, leaving me to figure things out on my own.

I really don't appreciate her passive-aggressive resentment of me, since her friend left the job through no fault of mine. Also, I hate petty office politics. I just want to do my job and get along with everyone. I realize I need to be patient and give people (especially Q) time to accept me, but I don't want to be a doormat in the meantime. How do I stick up for myself without being confrontational about it? — New Kid on the Block

Dear New Kid: "It would be interesting to hear Q's side of this," muses Monica Wofford, head of Orlando-based executive development firm Contagious Companies, which counts Microsoft (MSFT), United HealthCare, AT&T (T), and SeaWorld among its clients. "Often, we walk around assuming that everyone communicates the same way we do. But they don't. Q may be assuming, for example, that if you want her help figuring things out, you'll say so. Meanwhile, it sounds as if no communication is happening at all."

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Wofford wrote a book called Make Difficult People Disappear: How to Deal With Stressful Behavior and Eliminate Conflict. The title, she notes, refers not to literally making anyone vanish (no matter how much you may wish you had a magic wand), but to training yourself to "stop seeing differences as difficulties. Most of the time, once you make the effort to understand more and change your own expectations, 'difficult' people become a lot easier to deal with."

Great, but how do you do that? Wofford suggests starting with these four steps:

1. Withhold assumptions. Assuming anything about someone else's behavior, especially someone you don't know well, is risky and can lead to needless conflict, Wofford says. "Is Q really 'playing dumb', or could there be some other reason why she appears to be holding back on information?" Wofford wonders. "Until you discuss the situation with her, you're only working with your own data, and there are probably some crucial pieces missing." Withholding assumptions about what's going on "gives you time to gather more information, so that your perceptions are more accurate." More

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