Dealing with Difficult People
By Diane Bernebaum
A recent comment from one of my friends caught me off guard, but got
me thinking. She said, with a rather accusatory tone, “I bet you
actually like the people you work with. Everyone in my
company is so difficult!” After chuckling a bit and regaining my
composure, I had to admit it: I do like the people in my
company—every single one of them. I knew that I was lucky to work in
a place where people really care about the work and each other, but
this was a great reminder of that incredible fact.
But, isn't everyone difficult at one time or another? Is it really
possible to work in a difficult-free zone? What makes someone
difficult anyway? Ask your associates to describe a difficult person and I'm sure they
won't hesitate to share a few choice examples. I bet they'll even
fall into one of these classifications:
Arrogant types: Profess to know it all and want no help from
anyone else, since others are clearly less qualified and worthy.
Whining types: Always see the negative side of things and
are constantly complaining about it.
Demanding types: Want things done faster,
neater, and more thorough than humanly possible and will issue
threats if their demands are not met.
Uncooperative types: Fail to meet commitments and will
ignore multiple requests, deadlines, or even threats for their
Inconsistent types: Say one thing, do another and often
claim they never committed to doing the first thing in the first
Lackadaisical types: Don't seem to care about anything and
don't take much care with the quality of their work.
Any of these sound familiar? The fact is—anyone who doesn't behave
as we expect can be considered difficult and make our lives
difficult in the process.
Reacting to Difficult People:
Let's face it; difficult people have a way of bringing us down. A
friend recently described a conversation he had with an arrogant
type and exclaimed, “I just want to smack her!” Yes, this is a
common reaction (though, fortunately, it is rarely carried out).
Another associate complained about an uncooperative co-worker who
rarely followed through on his commitments and almost always missed
deadlines. Her response—total frustration (“He drives me crazy!”)
and a lack of trust that he will ever come through when she needs
him. Chances are she'll pad the deadlines she gives him or just go
elsewhere the next time she needs help.
With whiners, we may want to tell them to stop the insanity and quit
their belly-aching. After a while, we just stop listening to
anything they say (even when they are whining about a legitimate
We may feel pushed or threatened when dealing with a demanding
person—and decide that leaving the department or the company would
be better than facing those unreasonable demands every day. And, we tend to lose respect for, and ultimately even ignore, those
who are inconsistent or lackadaisical.
These responses, while perfectly natural and understandable, don't
tend to yield the best results. Often, we miss important information
or get so distracted that we lose sight of the task at hand.
In fact, we might become so annoyed and irritable that it affects
our own behavior, so much so that we are perceived as difficult by
someone else. And, if we are the difficult person in question, well,
you know how others are going to be thinking about and treating us.
Make a Change with Six Thoughtful Strategies:
While we cannot avoid crossing paths with difficult
people – in our jobs, friendships, and yes, sometimes even our
families – we can do something about it. It takes work, but it is
definitely worth the effort. Here are six ways to approach dealing
with difficult people:
1. Avoid Labeling or Judging People:
If you think you are dealing
with a difficult person, you are setting up the conversation to be
difficult. Subconsciously, you may put people in categories and then
expect them to behave that same way every time.
For example, your inner-talk about
co-worker Jack may go something like this, “Oh that Jack is such a
crab; he's going to complain about anything I suggest. I hate
talking with him.”
These thoughts that occur before the
conversation even takes place may actually negatively impact the
nature and outcome of the conversation. Resist the temptation to
label or judge, even if their behavior is irritating or disturbing.
2. Step Back Before You Respond:
Your natural response to a difficult
person may be a quick or critical comeback. Stop yourself! That
response may, in fact, come back to haunt you and cause the
conversation to go spiraling downward.
Trust that the other person does not mean
to be difficult. The more you can separate the behavior from the
person, the less likely you'll be to interpret their behavior as a
personal attack. Take time to compose yourself and think of your
response, instead of reacting immediately.
3. Stop Wishing They were Different:
How many times have you thought, “If only
she would be more responsive, positive, or reliable?
Stop wasting your precious mental energy
on a futile effort as you've probably realized by now that wishing
doesn't work. Difficult people are not irritating you on purpose—and
the best way to see a change in them is to change your own thinking
4. Use a Learning Mindset Approach:
Approach each interaction with an open
mind—avoid making decisions or predictions before you start. Really
listen to what the other person has to say and remain open to their
viewpoint. When people feel your support, they will be more willing
to work with you.
Practice using this approach with a friend
and see if he or she notices a difference. Or, seek help and
feedback from someone you trust. A little candid feedback can get
you back on track after a slip into auto-pilot mode.
5. Acknowledge vs. Argue:
Our first reaction may be to argue and defend our case. When someone
makes an unrealistic demand, we might blast out with a snappy retort
like, “That can't be done!” or “That's not realistic,” which can
only lead the conversation spiraling downward (see point two above).
Instead, acknowledge their perspective and
offer to collaborate on next steps. For example, “I can see that
this is urgent and you want the system fixed by tomorrow morning. It
is more complex than it may seem. I would like to take a moment to
go over it and explore a timeframe that will ensure that it is fixed
properly and completely.” This type of response will not only
position you as more of a partner, it will also lead to a better
conclusion for both parties.
6. Don't be a Difficult Person Yourself!
It is easy to identify someone else being
difficult. But, how many times do you look in the mirror and
acknowledge that you are the one being difficult, especially when
you are pushed, cajoled, or just plain tired?
Know thyself and recognize what triggers
your own responses. Take responsibility for your actions without
turning to your “dark side” so you don't become the difficult person
that others avoid.
By changing your attitude and approach towards difficult people,
you'll gain a wealth of knowledge, build relationships, and feel a
whole lot better. You'll also find that others respond differently
to you because they sense your support and willingness to listen.
And maybe someday, when a friend tells you about his difficult
co-workers, you too can smile and say that your workplace is not
really very difficult at all.
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