Find Mediators Near You:

“Difficult” People

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

In June 2011, I wrote a blog entitled The “Right” Brain discussing how to mediate disputes with high conflict people aka “difficult” people.

The other weekend, I attended the California State Bar Convention. There, my colleague Steve G. Mehta Esq. presented a seminar entitled “Dealing with Difficult Clients and Opposing Counsel: Successful Strategies and Tactics.” (Dealing With Difficult Clients) As Mr. Mehta had only one hour to get to the heart of the matter, he provided excellent practical advice.

Initially, Mr. Mehta states that there are six types of people of whom to be wary. Although he discusses them in terms of being clients in an attorney-client relationship, their personality types apply with equal force not only to friendships but to life in general:

Angry or hostile – This person is hostile and angry towards everyone and will get only worse with time. One not only dreads dealing with this person, but may even become angry after dealing with this person!
Vengeful or jealous – This person will claim that “it is not about money – it is about principle,” possibly to the point of being irrational.
Obsessed – This person has only one thing on her mind: the dispute at hand – the injury and ways to remedy it. She will be constantly calling you, e-mailing, etc. to make sure you have all of the information and then some!
Emotionally needy – This person is often emotionally fragile and insecure, is probably in a co-dependent relationship and is attempting to develop as co-dependent relationship with you.
Dishonest – This person will lie to you either by not telling you everything (i.e. omission) or telling you the wrong thing (i.e. deceit).
Unresponsive – This person wants the appearance of having an attorney who is providing advice but does not really want the advice. Rather, the person wants you to “rubber stamp” her actions and will reject your advice if it is contrary to what she wants to do. In truth, she has hired you (or befriended you) for “appearances” because “circumstances” require it.
Obviously, one person may contain more than one of these traits and thus be more than simply difficult to deal with. . . she will be very, very difficult to deal with.

So what do you do? How do you deal with these people? Mr. Mehta suggests that first – you need to look within yourself to see if you are part of the problem. Are you overreacting? What are your “hot” buttons and has this person pushed them? Are you misinterpreting, or misunderstanding what this person has said or done? Are you mis-communicating with each other? Is this person solely the only difficult person in the situation or is your bad mood contributing to the situation?

The second thing is to remember that we each have the instinct to “fight or flight.” Our brains are hardwired with this rudimentary response. Instinctively, when we are attacked – even verbally – our gut reaction is either to fight back or to flee the scene. Instead – we need to suppress this instinct by hitting our internal “pause” button. Stop. Take some breaths. Count to ten! Find the urge to use the restroom or go outside – in order to buy time to digest what has just happened and think clearly and rationally about what to do about it and how to respond. As I said in my previous blog – both you and the difficult person have to switch from your “left” (emotional) brain to your “right” (logical) brain to successfully deal with the difficult situation

And – as Mr. Mehta points out – you do not have to win. Analyze the situation – is it really worth the fight? The more you argue, the more both you and the other person will become entrenched in your respective positions. You can acknowledge what a person is saying without accepting it or agreeing with it. Sometimes, it is best just to let it go and move on to the more important stuff in life.

Further, Mr. Mehta notes that a good way to deal with difficult people is to use active listening skills: actually listen – truly and really listen to what the other person is saying, ignoring all distractions including your mobile phone. Try to understand her viewpoint and its basis. Ask open-ended questions and reframe or restate what she has said to make sure you got it right. Then, try to blend with her by using behaviors such as mirroring – that will increase the rapport and trust between the two of you. Try to connect with her. Once you have built up this rapport and trust with the person, you can then hopefully “control” the relationship or at least, the situation confronting you.

This is a lot to digest and think about. But something tells me that this strategy will work; that using these tips will make dealing with “difficult” people at lot easier!

. . .Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

Featured Mediators

View all

Read these next


How to Talk About Mental Health Without Offending Everyone – TEDx

Mediator Dan Berstein shares his journey to being open with his bipolar disorder, and how conflict resolution skills can help us overcome barriers to having conversations about mental health. In...

By Dan Berstein

Book Review: Improvisational Negotiation: A Mediator’s Stories of Conflict About Love, Money, Anger – and the Strategies that Resolved Them

With his new book, Improvisational Negotiation, Jeff Krivis reveals himself as one of the top storytellers in the mediation profession today. Krivis’ style in Improvisational Negotiation makes the reader feel...

By Jeffrey Krivis, Joe Epstein

How to give advice: 7 questions for advice-givers

I overheard this conversation recently at a dog agility trial: Woman 1: My dog has stopped liking jumps. So I’ve started rewarding again after every jump when we’re training. Woman...

By Tammy Lenski