Tip for Dealing With Difficult People

by Linda Henman, Ph.D.

  1. Give yourself a cooling off period. Don’t approach a difficult person when you’re angry.
  2. Don’t take the “hook” when people try to bring you into a conversation that you don’t want to have or aren’t ready to address. Simply say, “This isn’t a good time to talk about that.” Or, “We’ve gone over that before. You know my stand.”
  3. Put your ego aside. Listen first. Often people just want to know someone has considered their point of view. You lose nothing but a few minutes by listening to what someone has to say.
  4. “Own” your language. Instead of saying “You really screwed this up.” Try, “I see some ways to improve this.”
  5. Immediately work to find common ground. What can you agree about? Once you articulate that, you will better be able to address the areas of contention.
  6. Define how you’d both be better served by reaching agreement.
  7. Keep the conversation on track. Don’t allow the other person to throw in the kitchen sink from left field. Simply say, “We’re getting into another area. Let’s get back to the original question.”
  8. Deal with facts and observations, not inferences and judgments. Arguing about facts is difficult, however.
  9. Don’t worry about “why” they behave the way they do. It really isn’t important. Instead, focus on how you can work with this person.
  10. Whenever possible, avoid this kind of person.

7 Responses to “Tip for Dealing With Difficult People”

  1. Simon Hill says:

    I like point 10 in particular! Maybe an ideal world would have it that you can avoid these people, or that others that can’t see eye-to-eye with you can’t avoid you either! 1-9 though are good tips! thanks!

  2. Laura Hunter says:

    This is great advice for anyone. Parent, spouse, co-worker, friend,superior or report. Thanks for the reminder and the good new info!

  3. Jonathan Bird says:

    The context of this advice is important and needs to be defined. Are we dealing with a one off event or are we trying to build a relationship with these difficult people? Is it betwen peers or through the organisational hierarchy? The advice would be different according to the situation.
    Item 1 is okay unless there is a safety implication that needs to be resolved immediately. Secondly, don’t get angry in the first place, that’s just fighting fire with fire.
    Item 4, yes starting a sentence with I rather than you will ensure the recipient doesn’t get defensive
    Item 9, Understand the person and understand the problem. We all carry issues that effect our day to day performance. I’ve worked with lots of difficult people that have really performed simply because I chose to understand their drivers and discuss the best way forward
    Item 10, Avoidance is a cop out if there is a job to be done then grab the bull by the horns and deal with it

  4. Abhijit Lattoo says:

    hi, thanks for the tips!
    The third tip is very good but, what about the case when the “Difficult person” is not ready to put aside his ego. Sometimes even if you go by the method mentioned in tip you may not be able to handle the situation.

  5. PC Hutsell says:

    #4 is my downfall. So hard for me to jump to resolving before establishing blame even when I know it is the best process!! I feel the need to justify my own emotions before moving to the solutions.

  6. Som Gollakota says:

    @Abhijit –
    The third tip speaks about one putting one’s own ego aside. I wouldn’t bother much about the other person’s ego. When I am dealing a difficult person who doesn’t want to let go of his/her ego, I feed it. More eloquently put by Beth Moore, I acknowledge his/her position/standpoint, background, knowledge etc. Here’s a breakdown of Item #3.
    1. It is my ego that I need to set aside (not his/her’s).
    2. Listen to what they have to say.
    3. Acknowledge their position (different from agreeing with them).
    4. Agree where you can and don’t disagree where you cannot agree (At least not yet. It will happen later, but not just yet)
    5. Build on the agreement and feed his/her ego a little further (trust me, when you start feeding their ego, after a while, they will listen when you disagree)
    6. Then, respectfully (and tactfully) disagree, putting forth your viewpoints and making your stand clear

    Your last question is correct that, even after all this, we may not be able to defuse the situation. The “difficult person” may still seem difficult. If that happens, I take a look at myself to see if I am the difficult person in this situation (I should’ve already done that even before the start of the Jennifer’s 10 points, but it’s time for me to revisit that). If I have honestly and objectively ruled out all other methods and the person still seems difficult to work with, that’s when I will involve someone who has leverage over this “difficult person” such as their manager or director etc. At that point, it is an escalation. However, this escalation must be from the point of “Despite my best efforts, I am finding it difficult to work with this person. Am I missing something? Could you help me work with this person?” etc.

  7. pranash says:

    Great tips.
    However, I agree to disagree with point 10. The more experienced I get, the more I realise the converse of point 10 becomes truer. When there is a job to be done, focus on the project objectives and as johnathan says “grab the bull by the horns and deal with it”.
    Conflict & personality clashes are inevitable.

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