Dealing with difficult people in 6 simple steps

‘Difficult ‘ or unreasonable people and situations are part of our life – both at the workplace and outside. People who can’t stop talking and have an opinion on every issue. People who are demanding and critical, and intimidate others. Grumpy people who complain non-stop. People who don’t deliver or follow through. Or those that are quick to point out why a new idea or project won’t work.

The ability to handle contrary people with diplomacy and determination is a valuable skill for everyone. It is an especially critical skill if you manage a team.

Here’s one of the proven strategies on how to deal with ‘difficult’ people that will hopefully help you de-stress some difficult relationships on the job and off.

  1. Focus on your feelings. Interpersonal intelligence starts with emotional intelligence. What do you feel and how do react towards the ‘difficult’ person? Are you sure that you’re not over-reacting and the person’s behavior is truly unreasonable? Have you had trouble before with the same type of people or similar behavior? Would you say that your hot buttons are being pushed? (If your ‘fight or flight’ response gets activated, rest assured your hot buttons are pushed. And we have all those.) This is all valuable information that will help examine the situation more rationally. It is important is to keep cool and calm, and not to react emotionally in face of the difficult situation or person.  Acknowledge your feelings. Accept them. Take a deep breath. Count till 10. If you still feel triggered, find a way to distance yourself from the situation. It’s best to come back when you feel calm and rational.

  2. De-personalize. Yes, easier said than done. While this annoying behavior may be happening to you, it’s usually not about you. A helpful way to reduce personalization is to try to put ourselves in the «difficult» individual’s shoes, even for just a moment. Try completing the sentence «It must be difficult….” for the person in question. For example: «My colleague is snapping and behaving impatient lately. It must be difficult to balance the workload and her 3 children as a single mom». Or:«My partner is not expressing appreciation or affection. It must be difficult for him to express feelings, being brought up to be stoic and tough ». De-personalizing helps us to perceive the person’s behavior more objectively and come up with multiple ways to solve it.

  3. Separate the person from the issue. This is the golden skill you need to develop. Just like with a child that is misbehaving, it is important to keep the person and the behavior separate. Each ‘difficult’ person has positive traits. Someone you are perceiving as difficult may not be seen as difficult by someone else. Effective communicators and leaders know how to be kind and soft on the person and tough on the issue. This skill will help you create space between the person and yourself and you are likely to feel less defensive in your reaction. This technique is super important for managers out there.

    Special tips for managers. If you released all judgement and could not use any labels (negative vs positive, grumpy, difficult, etc), how else would you describe this employee? Could they be frustrated? Insecure? Fearful? Hurt? If you believed that the person’s actions and words are only a tip of the iceberg, what would be the main body? What feelings their actions or words could be masking?

  4. Take responsibilityIt is often said that difficult peole are our greatest teachers. They help us become aware of our own less than perfect reactions to unreasonable situations. Ask yourself « How is this person holding up a mirror to me ? ». Wiith an open-mind and a willingness to be wrong, look at your role in the issue. Even if you feel defensive, try examining yourself from their point of view. Switch perspectives : you may be your difficult person’s difficult person. If you’ve done something that isn’t the highest expression of who you want to be, acknowledge that and see if you can apologize.

  1. Initiate a private discussion. Now you’ve done the prep work, it’s time to have a private discussion. Check your energy first – is it non-judgemental, kind and open?

  • Start the conversation with genuine appreciation or flattery.

  • Separate the issue from the individual.

  • Describe what’s bothering you, using «I» messages.

  • Use facts and cite examples.

  • Pay attention to your tone of voice and body language.

  • If relevant, simply and sincerely apologize for any role you may have played in the situation.

  • Use humor, if appropriate. (Humor is a very effective disarming tool in conflict resolution when used skillfully.)

  • Spell out what you want to change and make a specific proposal. For example: «Would you be willing to start your comments with a positive feedback at team meetings?»

  • Ask for their feedback on what you told them.

  • If the person wants to exlain himself/herself or if he/she gets defensive or aggressive, let them speak and use ‘active listening’ skill to make them feel understood. Don’t let them go on for too long – stay pro-active.

  1. Boundaries. The simple truth is that we can request a change in someone’s behavior but it’s up to them to follow through. That’s why it’s important to keep setting limits and boundaries. We need to keep the focus on what we will or won’t do. We can say “I’ll be happy to discuss this with you when it’s a calm conversation.” Just because they push our buttons doesn’t mean we lose decision-making ability. Rising above someone’s negativy and not let it affect you or the meeting is another way to set a boundary and keep your power.

  2. Follow up and consequences.  Observe and follow up after the intiial discussion. Has there been a change in the behavior?Has the situation got worse? Depending on the outcome, there might be other steps to follow, for instance, calling the ‘difficult’ person on their behavior in public, discussing consequences with your boss or HR. It all depends on how grave the behavior is, if it’s affecting more than one person, if the person is a valuable team member in other aspects, and how important the relationship with this person is to you.

Knowing how to deal with unreasonable and difficult people is to master the art of communication. It will boost your self-confidence, improve your relationships and make you more successful and happier at work and socially.

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  1. […] Is your unhappiness related to work relationships ? Do you need to learn to manage conflicts better ? Again, this is the skill that will be handy at any job and any area of your life. Read here for tips on managing difficult people. […]



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