How do you Deal with Difficult People?

Life is difficult. There is no doubt you are going to run into people who will come across as difficult at some point or other. Not everyone you are going to meet in your life is going to be someone you like and can work with; and not everyone you meet is going to like you and can work with you.

Being with a difficult person is perceived as difficult. A difficult person can make you defensive, exhausted, drained, fearful, miserable, angry, unhappy. You are left with no time and no energy. The cost of resolving conflict is small relative to the high cost of leaving conflicts unresolved. Unresolved conflict can be toxic to both you and your organization.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is ‘Am I effective at dealing with difficult people at work?’ If the answer is ‘I am not really dealing with it very well’ then read on….

I am going to offer you a way to look at the situation with a different pair of glasses. You can learn to better deal with difficult people in your life by focusing on your response. It is not as difficult as it sounds, but it will take work.

1. Always start with yourself. Difficult people are not difficult until you believe that they are. People can demonstrate behaviour that you may believe to be difficult to deal with. I am not a great fan of the term ‘difficult people’. People are complex, different maybe… but not difficult. We all behave in a manner that is learned, from our experience. So, how other people act isn’t necessarily difficult. But because it is different from our expectations and from what we have become in our life experience, we perceive it to be difficult. It is a matter of ‘perception’. As soon as we believe something or someone to be difficult, it impacts how we interact with them. The truth is, we can also be the difficult ones. I know it may come as a shock, but yes… you too are the ‘difficult’ one to someone, somewhere.

2. What we think about, comes about. Dennis Deaton calls his book ‘the eye sees what the mind looks for’. As soon as we believe that someone is difficult we seek out evidence to prove that we are right because our brain needs to find correlation and support for our belief about the difficult person. And because we spend most of our time thinking about how other people should or shouldn’t behave with us, we spend very little time looking at how we are reacting to them. So yes it is true that other people do not drive your behaviour, your thoughts do.

3. How is the person being difficult? How you can deal with difficult people starts with recognizing how the person is being difficult. So who is the person and how is the individual being difficult? Being able to clearly state who is the difficult person, followed by what is the behaviour you find difficult, gives you excellent opportunities to examine what is really going on.

4. You are not alone in this. Did you know that in the study of employees from nine countries, the average number of hours spent per week on workplace conflict varied from 0.9 to 3.3 hours? Most conflict involving people at work revolves around unfulfilled needs, primarily the psychological need for control, recognition, affection, and respect. Watch this video on Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.

5. Where are your boundaries? At what point does someone become a difficult person for you? How is that person being difficult? List the behaviours. Here are some examples to help you. What is important here is to get clarity of what ‘being difficult’ means for you and at what moment the behaviours go beyond your boundaries and trigger your reaction.

Example:

Person A Complains all the time
Person B Always wants to be right
Person C Criticizes everybody all the time

Your turn: List the behaviour of the difficult people around you (you can have more than 3)

Person A…………………………………………..
Person B…………………………………………..
Person C…………………………………………..

6. What motivates difficult behaviours?
When you are able to pinpoint the difficult people and how they are being difficult, the next step is to see what motivates the behaviour that makes it come across as difficult to you.

What is driving that person to complain all the time?

…………………………………………..

What is driving that person to always want to be right?

…………………………………………..

What is driving that person to want to criticize everybody all the time?

…………………………………………..

7. Choose pleasure or pain

In the past, how have you handled something like this and what was the outcome?

…………………………………………..

What are you willing to commit to doing/trying/changing (by when)? How will you move forward?

…………………………………………..

8. Take positive actions

  • Use open-ended coaching questions that start with WHAT or HOW. Why questions can cause defensiveness. Yes or no questions can stop a conversation in its tracks. This will help the other person to give clarifying answers, which should help you understand their interpretation and perspective.

What………………………………………….?

How…………………………………………..?

  • Make a request of the other person. Ask for what you need to have a more productive working relationship. The other person can accept or reject your request, or can make a counteroffer.

9. Choose your words carefully

Use expressions such as ‘it seems like’, ‘it sounds like’, ‘it looks like’ and not ‘I am hearing that’ because using ‘I’ gets people’s guard up.

Finally, whether you choose to change your perspective and perception, there will always be complex people around you. How you choose to respond to their behaviours is ultimately up to you. You don’t have to give up who you are to work with a complex person. But you may just have to learn new skills and challenge yourself to do more and be more for yourself and others. Life is negotiation.

Nadine Powrie is an Executive Coach who helps leaders in organizations to manage change effectively. If you would like to have more information on Executive Coaching, please contact Nadine at npowrie@nadinepowrie. She would love to hear from you.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for the good explanation and how to handle difficult people because i am having the same problem most of the time at work and with this few tips i think it will go a long way for me and will make me a better person in life

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