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Dealing With Difficult People


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Last Updated on July 3, 2020 by Corinne Schmitt

The wonderful thing about people is that we are each a unique creation. Not only do we come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, we also vary in personality, temperament, and attitudes.

Some of us are shy, while others are outgoing. Some are planners while others are impulsive. We are optimists, pessimists, selfless, selfish, strong, weak, and most of us are all of things depending on who we’re with, where we are, and what we’re doing.

With this chaotic combination of characteristics brewing in all seven billion of us, it’s no wonder that we sometimes have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye with EVERYONE. Different politics, religious beliefs, principles, and perspectives place many of us at odds with one another quite often.

 

graphic images of 2 mad faces on a white background with title text reading Dealing With Difficult People

 

If you’re a person who doesn’t like conflict, you may try to avoid these uncomfortable situations by keeping your opinions to yourself when you are in the company of someone whose opinions differ from yours. You might even turn the other cheek if someone tries to goad you into a confrontation.

But what do you do if you work with this person and must see him or her everyday? What if you’re related to this person and avoiding him or her is difficult, if not impossible?

Because I have a hot temper, I’ve spend a lot of time reading about how to control my anger, especially when it comes to dealing with difficult people.

The advice on this topic always falls into one of two areas: 1) change your attitude, and 2) psychologically manipulate the other person. I know, the second area sounds more fun, but it’s the first area where you’ll make great strides towards your own happiness so we’ll start there.

Change Your Attitude

If you’ve ever been to a therapist (or watched one on television), you’re probably familiar with the saying, “Someone else can’t make you feel something, only you can control what you’re feeling.”

This advice normally gets an exaggerated eye roll from me because there are plenty of times I’m having a great day until I get home and realize none of my children have hung up their backpacks or started their homework, even though we’ve discussed these responsibilities over a dozen times. Their irresponsibility definitely affects my mood! If I let it.

Yep, I’m saying I have a choice. I can CHOOSE to get angry and start yelling about laziness and thanklessness and irresponsibility.

OR, I can calmly assign each of the children an extra chore (Yay! A plausible excuse to get someone else to dust the family room), with the promise of additional chores if their tasks aren’t completed before dinner.

So, while you can’t control other people, you can control your reaction to them. Now let’s look at how you can put that self-control to good use.

Separate Issues From Individuals

If you and a co-worker can’t seem to see eye-to-eye on anything, make sure you focus on the issue being debated and not on how stubborn the other person is being. Sometimes we are so put off by someone’s actions or words that we dismiss everything that person says or does without consideration.

This behavior typically results in the other person becoming even more difficult as he or she strains to be heard and understood. By acknowledging their salient points, you appear reasonable and well-intentioned to anyone else who might be weighing in on the decision and you diffuse the pattern of hostility that might otherwise develop.

You can affect issues. You cannot change another person.

Keep Your Cool

When I worked in customer service we were trained to remain calm no matter how upset a customer was when dealing with us. The intent was to keep the engagement at a civil discourse, rather than escalating it to a heated debate or argument.

Just as most people will smile at you if you smile at them first, most angry individuals will run out of steam and meet your quiet, non-threatening tone if you can maintain it rather than become agitated or raise your voice.

Even if the other person doesn’t cool down in response to your calm demeanor, you will avoid saying or doing things you might regret.

Play Devil’s Advocate with Yourself

If you dislike a person, you are likely to attribute a number of negative characteristics to him or her that may or may not be true. Rather than painting the person with that negative paintbrush, when he or she does something that annoys or upsets you, try to think up reasonable explanations that aren’t negative.

I find this easier to do if I picture someone I like and care about doing or saying whatever the person has done or said. When someone cuts me off in traffic, I might at first think, “Who does that jerk thing he is? He seems to think that it’s more important for him to get to where he is going than anyone else on the road, so much so that he’s driving in a reckless manner!”

But if my friend accidentally cut me off, I would think “I hope she’s okay! She must have a million thing s to do today that are occupying her mind. She didn’t even see me here.”

I’m not saying no one ever has nefarious intentions. You just don’t need to assume the people you don’t like ALWAYS have them.

Another thing I do when dealing with particularly difficult people is to think of reasons I pity them. I don’t ever say these things to them, but it makes it easier to deal with a barrage of insults when I tell myself they’re only doing it because they are miserable human beings who are trying to draw attention away from their own misfortune.

Pick Your Battles

Some people enjoy being difficult. I’m not sure if they like the attention or if it’s just entertaining for them to rile other people up.

Life’s too short though for you to scratch that itch for them on a regular basis. If you know someone like this, your best bet is to avoid engaging with them except when absolutely necessary.

The other woman on the fundraising committee insists on running all the flyers on yellow paper, though you’d prefer blue. Letting it go doesn’t make her a winner and you a loser, it makes you smart and means you have a life outside of this one task.

Save the knockdown, drag out fight for when she is pressing to have you personally deliver all of the fundraising items rather than arranging for a pick up day at the school.

Affect Their Behavior

Hopefully you didn’t skip right to this section, because without adjusting your own attitude, you won’t enjoy much success with this approach. Also, please notice that I titled this section “Affect Their Behavior” NOT “Change Their Behavior.”

If you skipped the first section because you think it’s too hard to change your own attitude, you should realize that it will be even harder to change someone else’s. The best you can reasonably hope for is to have an effect on how another person behaves.

Focus Attention on the Other Person

A common bully strategy is to verbally attack the victim. Difficult people like to keep you on the defensive so they will try to keep the focus on your faults.

The best way to stop these attacks is to respond to each one with similar observations about the other person. If you choose this approach, keep in mind the advice above to “Keep Your Cool” because you don’t want to escalate an argument or turn it into trading insults.

Instead, keep your tone level and your words polite, but direct. For example, in response to “The theme you’ve picked for the party is a lame idea” you could respond, “Since you haven’t offered any suggestions, I thought I would get the ball rolling. I’d love to hear your ideas though!”

Take the Lead

Difficult people like to be in control so they will usually try to lead the conversation. Break up their flow by changing the topic of discussion and redirecting the conversation to an area you can command.

Be kind, but firm, if they interrupt you by pointing out the interruption and requesting the opportunity to finish what you were saying.

Assert Consequences

If you use consequence assertion, you have to be very careful about how you do so in order to avoid appearing aggressive. Keep your body language and vocal cues non-threatening, but be assertive in your words.

With consequence assertion, you essentially issue an ultimatum. “I appreciate your perspective and opinions and would love for you to continue to share them with us. However, if you continue to stonewall the progress of this committee, I will have to call for a vote to remove you.”

 

These are the techniques I use to deal with difficult people. Have you tried them? Do they work for you? Is there anything else you do that has been effective? Please share your insights in the comments below.

54 thoughts on “Dealing With Difficult People”

  1. Great advice. I’m reading Unglued by Lisa Terkeurst which is giving me amazing insight into how I deal with conflict. I used to think I was an all out there kind of gal- I don’t like to leave things uncomfortable. But as it turns out I’m really not. I’m a stuffer.
    I’m learning though. I think we all need to find healthy way to cope with difficult people in our life that honors both us and them.

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    • Hi Angela, thanks for stopping by. I haven’t read Unglued yet. I’m definitely going to check that one out. I suspect I am a stuffer as well.

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  2. Great tips! I typically try to practice the “pick your battles” one, but these are all great, and worth giving a shot! Thanks!

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  3. I’ve had to work hard at putting many of those tips into place. Especially as a parent. I’m from a long line of “strong” women on both sides of the family. I’ve seen many relatives be overbearing and some of my cousins aren’t people I want to be around. I wanted different for my kids.

    One of the biggest helps was when I learned to pick my battles. Brushing teeth and bathing, worth the battle. Wearing tacky cowgirl boots from a garage sale, every day to school for a year, not worth it. I just let her be punky brewster and shook my head. Now we can look at school pics and laugh.

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  4. As you said in the first paragraph, I fall into the shy personality that tries to turn the other cheek. I actually really dislike this about myself, but I don’t know how to change it. I think we have opposite problems! Haha! You have good strategies to deal with difficult people. Good luck in your dealings with them.

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    • I think it’s an admirable quality to be able to turn the other cheek! I wish I was better about letting things roll off–this is something I have to work hard at. And I really run into trouble with individuals who won’t allow you to walk away. You’re very blessed to be able to keep difficult people from getting under your skin.

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  5. This is definitely an ongoing work in progress with me. I do get some personal training with all the opportunities to practice at home with my 5 children. 🙂
    But there will always be *those* people. Thanks for the encouraging reminders!

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  6. Those are wonderful solutions for dealing with difficult people! I particularly find “reframing” by separating issues from individuals and playing devils advocate helpful, too. Last year, I went to a First Steps to Success Event with Dani Johnson, and I loved her GEMS programs. It teaches the 4 different dominant personality characteristics, and how to interpret and respond to an individual based on the way they’re wired. It was super helpful to me…..and I wished I had that program when my kids were little and I thought they were just ‘being difficult’. 🙂

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  7. I love these and probably need to use them more. It takes me a while to get to that boiling point. But when I get there it’s hard to see anything but red.

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  8. It seems that I’ve had quite a few difficult people to deal with as of late, so thank you for sharing this pointers. I will definitely be using them!

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  9. I definitely do better at “Changing My Attitude” than “Affecting Their Behavior.” It’s much easier for me to keep quiet while someone is upset and talk to them when we have both calmed down. But then again, I’m not full-time in the work force to have to deal with those people every day. Great tips to keep in mind!

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  10. I enjoyed reading this. I loved the headings and how you broke it up into sections.

    I had a running list of people in my head who fit are definitely “difficult” and I’m apt to shut down when around them but that’s no solution! Thank you so much for sharing this. I will be checking out more of your posts.

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  11. The biggest takeaway from this post is that there is more than one way to deal with a difficult person! We can try a technique and if it doesn’t work—well try another. Changing our attitude is truly something we have control over. Excellent post!

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  12. I needed to read this before I head into the office. These tips actually work whether the individual is physically in front of you or on the phone. Thank you for reminding me how to keep a cool head!

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  13. Sounds like you have had great training and experience in dealing with difficult people. Though I do not shy away from difficult people, I do not care to debate or stir up an issue. As the peacemaker in my family, I became good at listening and asking what each party was looking to get from the other side. I am no expert, but difficult people do not bother me. Thanks for the tips on how to deal with this type of behavior.

    Reply
    • Tracy, peacemaking is a very valuable skill and one that does not come naturally to a lot of people. The people in your life are very blessed that you have this ability!

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  14. I, too, must reread this article, great advice! And, I agree, you don’t seem to have a ‘short’ temper…or maybe you appear different because of your personal work and experience? Thank you!

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  15. Good points here. I think the biggest thing is realizing that most of the time when someone is being rude, it isn’t about ME. They are having a rough day/week/month/year/time and don’t know how to handle it appropriately. If I can get myself not to take things personally, it makes my life a lot easier, no matter WHAT they say or do that could be offensive.

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  16. Great post! I have to say, as I’ve worked to change myself, let go of a ton of drama, crap, anger and other “stuff” that wasn’t serving me AT ALL, I’ve mellowed considerably. I’ve still got a temper but I have to be pushed SO much further before someone can provoke. When I worked in retail, I would whisper, or feign a frog in my throat so irate customers would have to shut up to hear me speak, and lean in. That normally calmed things considerably. Personally, I usually say, ‘you know, I’d rather be happy than correct so for today, you can be right.’ And I walk away from the conversation. Most people don’t know what to do with that…but if you’re looking to diffuse a tense situation, and you can get present with yourself to do it, that will work almost every time!

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  17. I have a colleague who was a total pain in the neck. We worked on a project together with me as the team lead, and she refused to do her share of work. After giving her the benefit of the doubt for three times that deliberately screwed up her work (I say deliberately because at that moment it was obvious she was defiant), I finally lost my cool. Needless to say, I did not mince my words. I was hoping that the situation wouldn’t end like that, but she was just being too difficult. Sometimes people just need to hear what they don’t want to hear. I like what you said about separating the issue from the individual. When it comes to work, most especially, it’s important to not make things too personal.

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  18. These are great tips! I especially use pick your own battles and playing devil’s advocate. I feel like I have to continually adjust my own attitude to deal with difficult people.

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  19. Great post…I tend to avoid difficult people until I can’t. I’m in HR, so more often than not you are dealing with diverse personalities that never seem to see themselves as others do!

    Thanks for the tips!

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  20. This is some wonderful advice! I also think it’s important to consider if we are the issue. Someone may be difficult because they think YOU are being difficult. Thanks for sharing!

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  21. This is a great post. I may consider doing something similar on my blog because this is a topic of endless fascination for me and with endless ways to handle it. I was actually dealing with one of my “difficult people” this week and I wish I’d handled it a little better. I actually just finished Crucial Conversations training a few weeks ago, so I would have hoped to handle it better. One of my fellow Scout leaders was being a bit of a bully and I decided that I needed to stand up for myself. I did handle it constructively and just asked him if we could show more respect for each other and be more respectful of each other’s accomplishments. But I think I was a bit harder on him that I really needed to be and I wish I could take some things back. Some of the techniques I use to deal with difficult people is to find things about them that I CAN appreciate and to give them credit for the good things they have done. I also try to give them the benefit of the doubt – at least for the first few times. But it had happened enough times with this guy that I felt like I definitely needed to shake up the pattern a bit. Difficult people definitely are DIFFICULT to deal with. #SITSSharefest

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  22. I think that in order to deal with other people effectively you have to be confident in who you are and know and understand your viewpoints, values and beliefs. Once you have that – it is much easier to deal with those who have differing values or opinions.

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  23. It is very hard to deal with difficult people, especially when they cannot be avoided. As I’ve grown older, rather than get upset, I try to figure out why they are so negative and I think you are absolutely right when you say to pity them – there is probably a reason they are tearing others down to make themselves feel better. Changing your own attitude is definitely the way to much more happiness in your own life! Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  24. Great tips! I really like separate issues from individuals. That is so important because people won’t feel as defensive then and you can work through those issues more easily.

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  25. Separate issues from people and affect their behavior – those are my two fave suggestions for dealing with difficult people. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to change my perspective. Especially when I’m characterizing something as difficult and avoiding folks because of what I perceive to be a difficult situation. Lots of times, I need to change my perspective and these tips – especially separating the issue from the people and trying to affect someone else’s behavior really are concrete ways to do that. While we are often told that we cannot really impact/control what other people are going to do, the reality is that if we go into a difficult/conflict possible situation with our own attitude blazing, then it is more likely that the response/entry to the conversation will be reflected likewise. Great tips! Thanks for the points!

    Reply
  26. I am dealing with a very difficult person at work right now. If anyone questions him on how to proceed on a task, he personally, verbally attacks them. I have tried to ignore him and also tried to get him to feel like part of our team. Both failed. I would appreciate any suggestions. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Based on the way you describe the situation, it sounds like this person is in charge? If he is truly verbally abusive in his response to questions, that is something I would report to either HR or a supervisor since it is causing a hostile work environment. With individuals who both refuse to be ignored and also refuse to change their behavior, the best approach is typically a direct one that forces the conversation back to the main points. For example, if he responds to a question about a task with a verbal assault about your flaws or lack of ability, I would state, “I appreciate your desire to share your opinions, however, I still require an answer from you on the specific issue in order to proceed.”

      Reply
  27. Oh my! I can’t even begin to express how helpful this article is to me. I am pinning it so that I can refresh my memory time and time again. Well laid out and incredibly helpful! Thank you!

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  28. These are great tips! As a younger adult, I was extremely short fused. Now I’m in my late 20’s and seem to be more calm. I guess I’ve learned in time that biting my tongue is for the best.

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  29. This is a must read for everyone! I’m sure we’ve all had to deal with difficult people. In fact, we’ve probably also been difficult at one time for another, so may offer some personal insight as well.

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  30. Hi Corinne – This is one of those articles – a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. It’s wishful thinking that the world would be easier if they changed, but they have no idea they are difficult, or don’t care and it’s up to us to figure out how we will respond and/or let it affect us or not. Tough message but very well written. Hugs, Holly

    Reply
  31. I’m so a person who avoids conflict! 🙂 I like how you gave the example of the person cutting you off, how if it were a friend you’d be concerned, it is good to remember we are seeing people in a single moment/group of a few moments out of their whole life. We don’t know the before or after moments – maybe if we were in their shoes we’d do the same, say the same, look the same at that moment. I realize this this always the case, sometimes it is someone you work with – I go for chaining my attitude then (in order to cope). Thanks for this reminder to respond and not react.

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  32. While I can certainly get all fired up about something, more often than not I just let it peter out. I guess that I have reached a point in my life where I realize I have “X” amount of time and energy and unless it is something really important, I just let it roll.

    Enjoyed the post!

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    • Hi Christina, that is a great attitude! I’m getting better at adopting it the older I get because as you point out, there are other things in my life I’d rather direct my time and attention towards.

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  33. I haven’t heard the tips to focus on the other person and to change the topic to gain control. About the former, I wonder if this tip might escalate things? It sounds like an idea I’d like to try. I heard once that if someone criticizes you and you know that they are the only person who has ever said that. So it doesn’t seem to be a comment that others share and you’re just in denial. Then you can say “you know that’s interesting. You’re the first person to ever say that.” Of course they might respond that they’re the messenger and nobody else wanted to say it. Often these types of attacks are personal. If you’re old enough how likely is it that no one else would have said something. It’s a nice time to pause and let them think about what you’ve said.

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  34. Great tips! I usually avoid a difficult person and try to to provoke them into being more difficult! Some days it is hard thought, because you want to make them realize how they are.

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  35. Hmmmm…..I had to really think on this. I think that both my partner and I have both been difficult over the past week or so. I saw a bit of both of these in these categories. I remember many years ago I was a phone sales person and we had to look in the mirror all of the time. The idea was we would keep smiling and not get angry. I think I need a mirror! Thanks for a great post!

    Reply
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  37. Normally I just try to ignore difficult people 😀 But if I can’t I keep my opinions to myself. I got some really great ideas from your post. I will try to use them the next time I have a situation with a difficult person. Thanks!

    Reply
  38. These are all good tips. My difficult person is my MIL so I have to be very, very careful. Alienating her would be so bad in so many ways, but it’s so hard sometimes. Changing my attitude has helped WONDERS!

    Reply

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