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Dealing with the Difficult: How to handle tough people

Dealing with difficult people is an unavoidable part of life. Whether it's a difficult coworker, a direct report, a family member, or a friend, someone will always challenge your patience and test your emotions.

Just for fun, see if you can think of any of these people as you read through these different personalities:


The Snow Plow - This person pushes their way through life. She plows over people at the expense of others through aggression and intimidation, strongly disliking weak-appearing people.

The Debbie Downer - This person is always negative, telling you why things won't work or are impossible. He feels like he doesn't have control over situations and this prevents him from talking positively.

The Rager - This person is best known for their explosive behavior. She is unpredictable, often erupting over the smallest of things when you least expect it. She may shout, throw things, or do physical harm.

The Know It All - He must be right and cannot be wrong. He is not open to your viewpoint or that of others. He makes you feel dumb and incapable when you are around him.

The Victim - She is the person who does not take any responsibility for things. It is easier for her to complain and blame everyone else.

The Silencer - This is the person who shuts down. He refuses to open his mouth to talk to you. He gets angry and annoyed but chooses not to express it.

The People Pleaser - This person agrees with everything and everyone. She only wants to please others, so she says yes, but rarely does she ever follow through because she has agreed to too many things.

The Cheap Shot - This person is just looking for ways to make you look foolish. He rolls his eyes at you, says rude things about you, and tries to undermine your ability to do work.

The Chatty Cathy - She's the talker...going on and on and on to anyone who will listen. Client, customer, or coworker, it doesn't matter; she just loves to gossip.

The Staller - Could this person just make a decision? He stalls on almost everything, fearful that he will make the wrong decision and offend someone or fail.

My guess is that as you read over these, the names of actual people started to come to your head. (Thank you Spherion Staffing for helping me name these!)

Yes, it's true...dealing with difficult people is just part of life. So, what can we do? How can you make dealing with difficult people just a little less difficult? Allow me to share the 5 Be-haviors for Dealing with the Difficult.


BE Calm

The most important thing in dealing with difficult people is to not take it personally. I know...this is hard. But if we take it personally we will have a tendency to react rather than respond.

Reaction = High emotion, impulsive, and doesn't work

Response = Controlled emotion, intentional, and often works

If you have to, take a step back, go for a walk, or talk it out with someone first. Do not match their behavior. As I think about this, I'm reminded of a woman I saw while I was in the emergency room. She was yelling at the top of her lungs to the hospital security, "I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe." Apparently, the doctors checked her out and it seemed like everything was fine so they were going to dismiss her. The security guard did not match emotion, but calmly replied, "Mam, it seems like you are breathing just fine!" That made me chuckle.

BE Curious

What I've come to learn in my experience is that very few people wake up with the desire to make your day miserable (except for Mr. Cheap Shot described above). Often, they are difficult because of some underlying issue. If you'd like to learn how to deal with them better, learn to start asking questions and listening better. In manufacturing they use the 5 Why's to get to an issue. The same could go for dealing with the difficult. Why are they difficult? They just don't get their work done on time. Why? It seems like they are unclear on timelines. Why? They are always distracted...etc.

If you go back to your high school psych class, you may recall that we all have five fundamental needs and the reason someone is being difficult is probably because they are not getting a need or a need is threatened.

BE Assertive

This is perhaps the most important BE-havior. Too often we just assume that we have to accept the difficult behavior or that if we ignore it for long enough it will go away. Sorry friends, this just isn't true. While we can never change someone and their behavior, we can do things to help them change their behavior. I believe there are two ways to be assertive: Set Boundaries and Use I Statements

Setting Boundaries. You should never be expected to accept poor and inexcusable behavior. Everyone is entitled to respect and you have the right to establish how people can deal with you. Setting boundaries simply means expressing the conditions of working with you. For example,

"I listen to people who speak with a calm voice"

"I prioritize the requests of people who get their work done on time"

"I am happy to help anyone who doesn't use profanity around me"

Using I Statements. This is an old tool, but it is still as relevant today as it was decades ago. I statements are a way to express how you feel without offending the other. They let the other know the effect they are having on you. Here are some examples,

"I feel threatened when you use that tone of voice with me."

"I'm not motivated to help you when you don't get things done on time"

"When you go above me, I feel disrespected and embarrassed."

BE Mutual

If you are working closely with this difficult person, the fact is you have to figure out how to get along. Determining mutual interests can help you do this. You see, they want something (or some things) and you want something. Becoming clear about what both of you desire often will help you identify things that are common and this is the rock you can build upon. Say you are working with someone who is hot-tempered about maintenance because the line keeps shutting down. Ask them what they most want. Let's say he says his greatest desire is for the line to keep running so that he can meet his KPIs. You then can express that your desire is the same. Now you have mutual interest. From here you can start to strategize or brainstorm how to make things happen so that you can both be happy. Agreeing with people who are difficult is a quick way to diffuse situations and when you find what is mutual it is easy to agree.

BE Supportive

Our final BE is be supportive. That is, your goal with difficult people should not be trying to figure out how to get away from them, but actually to see how you can help them. Sometimes they don't know that they are difficult. When you are assertive, you can help them understand what they are doing. Sometimes they just need someone to understand their situation. When you become curious, you can do that. If they can't make a decision, identifying mutual interests can give you an opportunity to help them see how important decisions are for both of you. If it helps, take a piece of paper and write out all of the things that they are doing that annoy you. Then, go outside, take a lighter, and burn that paper (or simply rip it up and throw it away). Yes, they are annoying but what good do they have? How can you help them grow the good? What role can you play in helping diffuse the difficult...not just for you but for everyone they interact with? That is what real people of influence do.

I hope that you've found these ideas helpful. I have practiced them all, but I can't say I've mastered dealing with the difficult. Sometimes I forget, sometimes I get angry (currently playing the silencer with a certain family member), and sometimes I can't figure out what their driving need is. Either way, my heart is in the right place and I continue to explore ways to help others. I hope the same goes for you.

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