Dealing with Difficult People

In this section we will explore strategies for dealing constructively with those difficult people with whom you may find yourself laboring at school or work. They are everywhere if you haven’t noticed. On a more serious note, it really is critical to master this life skill early in your career as you will encounter difficult people in the workplace. Both your short term and long term career success and satisfaction will depend to a significant extent on your ability to successfully interact with these people.

The take home messages in this section are:

  1. People are difficult so it is helpful to be able to identify them and understand why they are difficult; and
  2. There are techniques that may be useful in dealing with the difficult people in your life; and practicing them now will make your life and future career much more pleasant and successful!

People ARE Difficult

Most people in the workplace are quite normal and nice ordinarily but may become difficult under special circumstances aka Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It should make sense then that if we can begin to identify some of the common potential stressors, situations that bring out the worst in people, this might allow you to better deal with these folks as will help you identify options and to act rather than react to any unpleasant situations that may arise with your difficult people.

Difficult People May Be Difficult for a Reason or Well… Difficult People May Simply Be Difficult

Some otherwise nice, normal people can become difficult people under certain circumstances. Common triggers are feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. The root of their problems may be a lack of social, self-efficacy, or even technical skills. There are others however who are simply, well, difficult. They are downright loud, mean, and contrary to everyone they meet in every situation that arises and yes, everyone knows this but that doesn’t prevent them from wreaking havoc wherever they go.

Some difficult people are aggressive while others may be passive in their aggression. Sounds funny doesn’t it? The aggressive difficult people are perhaps the easiest to identify. They are loud, intimidating, argumentative, even hostile in their demeanor. Not all aggressives are openly aggressive. Some difficult people appear quite pleasant on the surface but be covertly hostile behind the scenes taking verbal pot shots, delivering backhanded compliments. This may make these folks even more dangerous than the difficult people who are openly hostile-aggressive. Others are more passive in their aggression. They may be pleasant, cooperative on the surface but just never able to make a decision, take a risk, or complete an assignment. From their perspective, the problems are always external. Their behavior can be as toxic to you, your success, and happiness as those who are aggressively difficult.

Tips on dealing with difficult people

First, recognize that it isn’t helpful or healthful to take the behavior of difficult people personally.

Second and perhaps more importantly, what you need to realize is that you aren’t going to change or fix them. It isn’t your job and I don’t think you really want that job anyway. No one – and I repeat no one – changes their behavior unless and until they want to change their behavior. So, what can you do? The only person you can change is yourself. So, focus on changing your pattern of emotional and behavioral response to the difficult people in your life so that you make healthy and productive emotional and behavioral choices that benefit you now and in the long term!

Third, manage your emotions in your dealings with these people. Learn to depersonalize their behavior. This is what I suggested at the outset and is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can offer. Don’t become defensive with your difficult person. This will only fan the fire. Don’t play their game (it may be a game in their mind by the way even if it is not a game to you). Recognize that they act the way they do because this strategy believe it or not has worked well for them before in similar situations. This doesn’t mean that their behavior is positive, healthy, or that it produces the results that you or I would consider productive but rather that it meets their needs, emotional or behavioral, not necessarily in a rational or productive way that you or I would understand. Don’t expect or try to understand them as this isn’t going to change these people or their pattern of behavior.

Do seek support from others. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, you may find it useful, for example, to keep a dated written record of your interactions with your difficult person. Depending on who the difficult person is it may be useful to discuss the situation with your advisor, a trusted friend and/or colleague. Consider seeking professional support through your Human Resource Management department.

Finally, as with anything in life, recognize that dealing with difficult people is a skill worth learning and that as a skill it is one you can cultivate with practice. Commit to assess past incidents and learn from them: Who was involved? What happened? How did you feel? How did you respond? How do you wish you had responded? What could you do differently in the future to affect a positive outcome to a similar incident?

Dealing with aggressive, difficult people

Be clear with aggressive difficult people about how you want or don’t want to be treated and don’t allow them to treat you otherwise. If you are upset by something that your aggressive difficult person says, you can respond with a comment like: “That wasn’t nice. Please do not speak to me like that.”

If you anticipate unpleasantness in meeting with your aggressive difficult person, meet them in a neutral location, one in which you feel safe. If your aggressive person uses indirect or covert tactics, bring them out into the open, name the offending comments or actions and directly question your aggressive difficult person about their verbal attacks. If appropriate, consider asking a colleague or supervisor to be present when you meet with this person. If the difficult person is your supervisor, consider inviting their supervisor to be present or invite a mutually respected third party.

If your difficult person becomes angry, don’t allow them to make you angry or upset. If you do become upset, try counting to ten before you say anything. If you feel you are going to cry or say something you will regret, excuse yourself, go to the restroom or step outside and compose yourself. Don’t let your difficult person’s poor behavior harm or eat away at you: Consider doing something physical like vigorous exercise, cleaning, or a relaxing, calming activity like yoga or painting. You may also find it therapeutic to vent your anger and frustration on paper or on your computer. However, if you choose to do this, be sure to delete, if an electronic document, or shred it, if on paper, least your words take on an unwanted life of their own, which will only exacerbate the situation with your difficult person and/or backfire on you.

Once your anger and frustration have subsided, pat yourself on the back for handling a difficult situation well, process the situation, and plan (time, location, script) your next conversation with the difficult person.

Dealing with passive difficult people

Passive difficult people crave approval but feel unqualified and therefore are unable to take the actions they need to in order to earn the approval and respect they seek. Since they feel that they are unable to meet expectations and they can’t admit that they may be noncommittal or feign agreement when asked to perform a task or work with others on a project but will likely be among the first to blame other people when things don’t work out. The best strategy for dealing with passive difficult people is to meet their misbehavior head on and bring it out into the open. For example if your passive difficult person misses an important deadline, offer to meet with them and inquire why. They may feel unable to perform the task assigned and unable to acknowledge that openly. If this turns out to be the case, offer to provide them assistance in order to complete the assigned task.