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Dealing with Difficult People

We have to face dealing with difficult people at any time in our lives (and at both work and in our home lives). But in general, it’s not so much that the people themselves are difficult (although there are exceptions to this of course), but it is more likely that we find their current behavior difficult to deal with at a particular point of time. They may be preventing us from reaching a specific goal, sabotaging an agreement we thought we had, ignoring our feelings or needs, demanding too much attention, being disruptive, not listening, being overly dominant, deliberately misunderstanding what we are saying … the list goes on and on.

Difficult people can be bosses, peers, subordinates, customers, suppliers, government figures in authority, neighbors, friends, family members or anyone else we are in contact with. What they all tend to have in common is that we find it difficult to deal with them and can often react emotionally to their words and deeds and even their presence. In this brief article we want to provide a few ways in which each and every one of us may deal with difficult people more successfully in the future.

In summary terms we can deal more successfully with difficult people by using the following 4 steps:

1: Separate the Behavior from the Person

Understand that the person is far more than the behavior we do not want to be dealing with. Often the very thing we find difficult to deal with assumes such gigantic proportions that we confuse the way they behave with who they really are. Think of the other person as well meaning, in general, but who is behaving in a way we don’t like at this time. In some cases this may well be quite a stretch but it will help us handle their behavior to think in these terms. We will want to concentrate on changing the behavior or our response to it, not attack the person.

2: Understand That Behavior is Driven by Needs

The behavior we find difficult to handle will be almost certainly be driven by a need or needs of the difficult person that has yet to be fulfilled. For example, a drive to control could be the result of a need to feel safe, or disruptive behavior the need for attention. We may not ever know what the underlying need is but if we spend time discussing what these underlying needs might be, the behavior may diminish or even disappear.

3: Take Responsibility for Inability to Handle the Behavior

Difficult people are only difficult to us because we have yet to find a way to deal with them (at least for the most part) and the way that they are behaving is likely to be affecting our own emotions in an adverse way. If we try harder to recognize and then “own” our own emotional reactions, it may be far easier to make progress. Taking responsibility for our own reactions gives us the power to deal with the other person. If we label them “difficult” we are giving them power over us.

4: Be Prepared to Learn and Build Flexibility

As there is always more than one way of looking at things, it follows that the more different ways we can find to deal with difficult people, and the better our chances of being successful. It helps us too to come from a position of looking for something new to learn in each difficult situation.

Each of the above is essentially about changing our own perspective and trying to see the bigger picture. However, there are other options available and here are some other approaches you therefore might try:

Approach 1: Build Better Rapport

We understand the needs of others if we take time to listen and try to be as empathetic as possible or put ourselves mentally in their shoes as much as we can. Our rapport building efforts will be helped also by techniques such as active listening, matching and mirroring and trying to establish trust.

Approach 2: Match the Words They Use & Information Processing Preferences

Most people have a distinct preference for processing information in one of three ways. They prefer to see it, hear it or experience it for themselves. The key to their preference is often in the words they use. Do they “see what you mean”, “hear you” or “get a feel for things”? We can build better understanding with them and reduce the barriers to progress by matching their word preferences and providing instructions, information and the like in a way that suits them best.

Approach 3: Use Advocacy and Inquiry

We can often irritate the person we are finding difficult by seeming to them to be too passive, to be interrogating them or appearing to be stuck in a position of our own to which they are responding in a negative way. By using a more appropriate balance of Advocacy and Inquiry in our communication with the other person, we can bring them into a meaningful dialogue.

Approach 4: If Emotions are running too high – Go to The Lake!

Most people become more difficult when negative emotions get in the way. The more that the emotions escalate, the more difficult the situation becomes. One way of disengaging from the emotion is to mentally “go to the lake.” We all have our own special place that is mentally peaceful and pleasant where the worries of the world just evaporate. This is simply a quiet place where you can think, re-group and de-sensitize a situation and perhaps find new avenues for discussion.

Approach 5: Value The Other Person’s Model of The World

Often, the person with whom we have difficulty sees the world in a very different way from us. If we dismiss their way of seeing things as wrong or inappropriate then they are likely to act negatively towards us and become more resistant or even difficult. We do not have to agree with their point of view but it helps top acknowledge that this is the way he or she see things and even affirm that we have some sympathy with this perspective if we can.

Approach 6: Call The Other Person’s Behavior

Sometimes confronting the difficult behavior by “calling” it can have very positive effects. Use words such as “What I observe right now is that you are communicating in a very aggressive manner or interrupting me before I have made myself clear and what I would like is an equal say or a fair hearing”, etc.

Approach 7: Create a Little more Physical Distance

It is easier to get perspective on difficult behavior and lower any emotional charge there may be if we maintain a healthier physical distance from the person we find difficult. We can physically stand a little further away or even talk on equal terms across a table or a desk.

Approach 8: Be Appropriately Assertive

We can always review our own level of assertiveness when dealing with the person we find difficult. Are we being too strong or too weak in our communication (and how can this best be adjusted in the circumstances)?

Approach 9: Avoid Power-plays

If the person we find difficult is playing one of the three power triangle roles: persecutor (or intimidator); rescuer (of another person) or victim, we can disengage from the natural tendency to respond with one of the other roles and maintain a calm and reasonable approach (simply refusing to play the power game).

Approach 10: Try Something Completely Different

If all else fails and we have not yet found a way to deal with the difficult person (and it still matters to find a solution) it is now time to try something completely different to any of the above approaches. We can change the dynamics of our interaction in a number of ways by radically changing what we are doing. Here are some ideas that we might try:

Some people move away from things they don’t want. Try making the consequences of the current behavior worse than continuing with it.
Agree with them.
Act “dumb” and ask the person to explain the point that he or she is advocating in more detail so we can really understand them.
Ask their advice.
Provide some relevant wider facts or education on a related topic.
Change the emotional level. For example, appear to get annoyed if you have been calm.
In the final analysis “it takes two to tango” as they say and some people will remain as difficult as they were. However, the above efforts are likely to make a big difference in most situations.


John Radclyffe

John Radclyffe, Founder and Managing Director of WorldGAMES in Australia, is a rare breed of facilitator, trainer and consultant who has in-depth and hands-on experience in a broad range of skills; training, financial, marketing, new business development and business management among them. MORE >


Jon Warner

Jon Warner is a Los Angeles based executive coach and management consultant with extensive expertise in organizational development, change management and business optimization. He is also a developer and user of many business and people assessment models, including the use of Psychology Type in business to help optimize individual performance… MORE >

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