Difficult People - Can't Live Them, Can't Live without Them
Or Can You?

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Think, for a minute, about those difficult people in your life and what makes them so. While they come in all shapes and sizes, they do have characteristics in common.

  • They have low flash points and go off without warning.

  • They act as though the ordinary rules of polite conversation don't apply to them, just to the rest of us.

  • Their difficult behavior occurs repeatedly and consistently.

The story goes that the Buddha once refused to respond to a verbally abusive man who came to see him. In frustration the man eventually asked why he did not respond. The Buddha then said, "[I]f someone offers a gift, and you decline it, to whom does it belong?" (Thanks to Steve Pavlina of Steve Pavlina.com for the story.)


You can refuse the "gift" of insanity, anger, negativity, or abuse that is being offered. can also change the rules of engagement with a difficult person. You can sometimes negotiate with a difficult person. The one thing don't have to do is suffer in silence which is what this page is about.

You get to choose who you let into your life and who you don't. Difficult people are usually exhibit the negative traits in their personalities rather than the positive ones. They seldom realize how damaging their behavior is to themselves much less anyone else. Do you recognize any of these personality types? These are the dark sides of the behaviors outlined in our Negotiating Personality Styles Inventory, which you are free to take at anytime.

The Bully

The one who always needs to be right. It's their way or the highway. They value high levels of self confidence and aggressiveness. They are quick to jump on signs of weakness in others. Their behavior tends to be aggressive, abusive, accusatory, arbitrary and arrogant. They fall into the Controller quadrant of our inventory, although they are the nightmare, or ineffective, version.

The Know It All

These people find fault with everything and none of it is ever their fault. At their best they are experts in their subject matter, who are thorough and accurate. They defend with data dumps that can overwhelm you. They come across as pompous, self-righteous, narrow-minded, and condescending. They are what Analyzers can become when they are at their worst.

The Pessimist

These people believe that life is unfair, especially to them. They may have experienced past disappointment and have been unable to get over it. They are often angry, bitter, and resentful and are easily offended. They deflate optimism, take away hope and erect inflexible barriers. They belong in the Promoter quadrant but their behavior makes them the Promoter from hell.

The People Pleaser

These are the people who over promise but never deliver. They can be very pleasant to be around but continually let you down. Since they want to avoid conflict at all costs, they make themselves very agreeable, but over time you tend to mistrust what they say. They were once very functional Supporters who have taken a wrong turn in life.

Sometimes understanding more about a person and their motivations helps you to see things in a different light. You are then more able to separate from the roiling emotions inside you and examine the situation in a different light which promotes creativity and resourcefulness.

Your first task is to decide whether to deal with it or be like the Buddha and let it go. Both resposes are valid but require different skills. You need to examine your automatic defenses. You may also find it helpful to discuss this with a trusted friend or colleague.

When dealing with difficult people your natural instinct takes over and you freeze, flee, or fight. You may want to defend yourself immediately. Or you may experience temporary shock or paralysis. Both are common and automatic reactions. Resist the impulse! Either only tends to escalate the situation or give legitimacy to the attacker. It also hinders a more rational and adult response. When you think back to the times when you reacted quickly and emotionally, you always find that you regret it.

  • Does the difficult person affect others the same way or just you?

  • Do you have "hot buttons" that are easily pushed?

  • Has this kind of problem interaction come up often in your life?

  • Is this a problem with someone else or in you?

  • Are the reasons you allow this to go on serving a useful purpose?

If you are not the problem, then you need to act. It's much better to speak to the difficult person than to stay mum. Talking about the situation continuously but not doing anything about it will only get you labeled a complainer or troublemaker. You need to act, but you need to do it in a rational, emotionally controlled and objective way.

One thing is clear, the longer you ignore or avoid dealing with this situation the worse it gets. It simmers below the surface and breaks out at the worst possible times. Remember if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you always have gotten. One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect to get a different result! Therefore it makes sense for you to develop effective conflict management strategies.

What to Do When Dealing With the Situation is the Only Way

  • Give yourself time to cool down and achieve distance from the immediate emotional response.

  • Take time to prepare.

  • Write down your goal for a meeting. Include questions you have for the person and information you want to make sure they know. NOTE: Setting goals helps you to accomplish your objectives. Writing things down helps you to clarify. You prepare for the things that are important in life.

  • Set up a one on one meeting with the other person in a neutral place.

  • Start by playing nice.

  • Use "I" messages, ones that communicate your experience and show ownership rather than attacks or accusations.

  • Acknowledge your mistake but refuse to accept a label that is a global putdown. You may make mistakes, that doesn't make you a total screw-up.

  • Get their input. How do they see the situation? What are their ideas for resolving it? Offer your best guess sbout what they are feeling and ask for their feedback.

  • Try to get a forward focus agreement outlining specific supportive and positive actions both of you can take.

  • Write it down, get their input, then give them a copy.

  • Schedule a follow up evaluation meeting to see how things are going and to do any necessary tweaking.

Great so you did all that, and . . . . . it didn't work. What's next?

The Spoiler

Interrupt the action. The next time they start on you, do something different. Tell them you'll talk when they feel better, or walk out, call time out, sing, dance, start laughing, just do something that distracts them.

Set your boundaries. State your standards for what you will and won't accept, and enforce them. The law calls it the "bright" line test. When someone is over it, it is very clear.

Tell them to back off! But in a calm, forceful (assertive not aggressive) manner.

Withdraw your attention. Just like you wouldn't give into your 3 year old's temper tantrum in the supermarket, ignore the emotional 3 year old tantruming in front of you and go do something productive on the job or for yourself.

Play honest not nice. Confront the other person about their behavior. Be very explicit.

Give specific examples. State why the behavior is unacceptable to you and specify what you want to change. Difficult people aren't often challenged directly about being difficult.

Limit their access to you or remove them from your life. This can mean asking to switch work stations or offices or moving to a different division, or, in the most extreme cases, quitting your job. Life is short. Ask yourself if it is worth it to your well being to put up with the behavior.

Create a mental behavior management chart for them. Just like the one that may be on your refrigerator that you use with your kids. Praise any positive behaviors, no matter how small, confront negative ones directly. Ask are you trying to manipulate me to get what you want? Why are you bullying me?

Withdraw your support on other matters.

Rally others to your cause. Get leverage. Sometimes a group "intervention," or a group petition to the boss, can succeed when an individual cannot. This is risky, though, so be sure to do a cost benefit analysis.

Take care of yourself and be kind to yourself. Recognize the stress these encounters engender and give yourself a massage, or some other treat just for you.

Get training. Arm yourself with more behavioral options.

To learn more about resolving conflict, click on any of the links below.

To learn more about other conflict resolution topics, click on any of the links below.

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