Dealing with Difficult People

Angry Female 210Handling difficult people can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a quote we often attribute to our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, "I don't like that man. I must get to know him better." Often this can indeed be the road to making many difficult relationships less so. Other times, working with a difficult person takes skill and in extreme circumstances, even safety concerns. Every workplace has some person who makes life difficult, slows productivity, causes stress, or just likes to “stir things up.”  Changing jobs can help, but often there will be someone at the new job who is either more or less difficult than the person at your previous job. Running from difficult people is not always the answer and ignoring them is never the answer. What are some ways to handle a difficult person in your life?

Begin with Self

Always be sure that you are not the difficult person in the scenario. We all have blind spots and self-assessment is the best way to understand your communication and behavioral styles. You can suggest that your team take individual assessments or do 360s. Of course, you can just take one yourself or ask for feed back from people you trust, a coach, or mentor. Now let’s look at some tools to help deal with difficult people.


Everyone wants to feel heard. It may be difficult to listen as someone spouts off for 10 or 15 minutes without taking a breath, but allow the other party that time, allow them to vent, and step in when appropriate or there is a pause. If they are using inappropriate language, then tell them that you want to listen, but that you are not willing to listen to that language.

Stay Calm

This is a fundamental to every encounter regardless of the presence of danger or the level of stress. Dealing with difficult people can quickly spiral out of control unless you maintain responsibility for keeping calm throughout any verbal or email exchange.

Don’t take actions, activities, or what is said by the other party personally. It may be a natural response to want to defend yourself or a friend, but take the 40,000-foot view of activities, not the person, or your personal feelings. Staying clam allows us to stay in control. Staying in control gives us more leverage and garners more respect from the other party.

Be Respectful

Everyone is entitled to their opinions, perspectives, and ideas. While you may not agree with them, even strongly, there is never any reason to show disrespect or try to change someone’s opinion, especially in a work setting. We all know that the topics of politics and religion are ones we avoid in the work setting. While you may want to ask questions around a topic such as a change that is coming to your workplace, take great care in how you phrase questions and your tone in asking them. Instead of saying something like: “What makes you think that?” Try something like: “To help me understand why that might be the case, could you please elaborate on that point?” Even if the other party replies in agitated manner, stay respectful, calm, and listen.

Pick Your Battles

While this is some of the best martial advice you may ever receive, it applies in work and life as well. So, what if Fred comes to work half-hour late? If he still gets his work completed and the boss is OK with it, what does it really matter to you? If the half-hour is causing some type of slow down in productivity or danger, then it may merit some discussion. Otherwise, pay attention to your own job and find something more important to address.


Sometimes it takes effort to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Times like these require just that. Our entire working arrangements are different. Some people handle it well, others not so much. Some people have burdens to bear such as the care of an elderly parent or a child with a disability that we find difficult to fathom. Others may find loneliness unbearable. Always first seek to understand, then to be understood.

When It Becomes Toxic

Ensure that you know the difference between a difficult person and a toxic person. Are you being overly sensitive? You can often gain perspective from others as they may have similar experiences. Sometimes, it is abundantly clear when the other person is toxic because of bullying, language, or threatening movements. Safety is always the utmost concern. Never be alone with this person if at all avoidable.  If it becomes necessary to seek support by going to your manager, be sure you have your ducks in a row. You do not want to come off as a whiner, complainer, or someone who cannot handle their own issues. Plan your conversation carefully. Prepare documentation if necessary. Keep the focus of the conversation on how the situation is affecting productivity, work, or the progress of a project. Keep in mind that you may have to participate in a three- or four-way conversation involving the difficult person and there may well be a follow-up session down the road. These are all circumstances to keep in mind if you are going to your boss or to HR.

Of course, quite often a toxic boss is the problem. Visual Capitalist offers a revealing flow chart on just how detrimental a toxic box can be to culture deterioration,  productivity, and even more importantly to your health and maybe even your life.

In Summary

If necessary, participate in training to diffuse difficult situations and conversations. You can arm yourself with phrases to use, phrases to avoid, and ways to descale conversations that seem to be getting out of hand. Practice your own mental toughness and be resilient.

If you would like to have a no obligation conversation around handling difficult people, Let’s Get Started!

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Communication,, Difficult People, selfassessment