Managing Difficult People


The first thing to say is that none of us have the exclusive on working with difficult people from time to time, Or, to qualify that statement, characters who feel difficult to us. Undoubtedly, there will be others to whom they may be utterly charming, kind and loveable.

Meanwhile, you may be able to gather a million bits of evidence to justify your feelings. This person behaves aggressively, seems hostile, arrogant or unreasonable, alternatively they may be unprofessional or else totally unreliable.

Whatever is going on, while demonizing their failings may make you feel better, it also doesn’t really help. All it does is allow you to play the victim.

It may sound harsh, and it may not be easy to take action either, but while you don’t do anything about the situation you are complicit in your own misery. It is also hugely stressful to feel that the situation is out of your control.

Clearly, the other person may feel bigger or more powerful than you in whatever way or else be perceived as being too fragile to cope with the truth. There may be politics to consider or else you simply don’t have the confidence to tackle them. Yet confidence issues aside, hoping that they will ‘see the light’ or change their ways overnight is unrealistic.

There are still some simple steps that could help alleviate the situation, or at least make it more bearable. At first glance they may sound unpalatable.

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Firstly, you have to give up the idea of winning - at least at their expense. Your challenge is to contemplate the idea of finding a win-win. Why you would want them to have any kind of win when they have inflicted misery or hardship upon you may sound insufferable, it’s also one way to break the deadlock.

Seeking a win-win resolution requires logic and reason. When you choose to let go of the emotions surrounding this person your more rational self can focus upon their specific behaviours.

If you would prefer to dwell on them instead as beyond hope, an entirely monstrous being, at least you know that you are choosing not to pursue a more rational view of the situation.  



When you start framing their behaviours more objectively and neutrally, you are on your way to managing the situation. Removing your feelings of moral superiority means you can also stop pointing an accusing finger, which merely serves to fuel the situation.

However misguided or warped you expect the world seems from their perspective, when you force yourself to step into their shoes, there are usually helpful insights to be found.

Letting go of your need to be the wronged party may also mean that you discover that there is something about your behaviour or attitude that isn’t helping. Of course, this is not always true, but it could be.

Contemplate for a few moments that while they may be your most difficult person – it is conceivable that you could also be theirs. Consider the manager who cannot understand why one of her team is constantly contradicting her version of events and seems to be argumentative and sullen. What could be going on? It may be that the team member was born awkward. It is also likely that this person does not behave like this with everyone.

Reflecting over communications, it may be that the other person feels similarly passionately about their work, feels unappreciated or misunderstood by their manager. In this example, whose perspective is right?

Unless one person behaves differently the script is written for meltdown as each person feeds the other’s assumptions and both continue to gather evidence about the bad behaviour of the other. In an ideal world, you could assume that the manager should pre-empt such conflicts, yet we don’t live in an ideal world and why wait for Disney resolutions.

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When you take the step of thinking about things from the other person’s perspective, options you had never considered before may suggest themselves.  

Big confrontations can also be avoided by simply turning up or down certain aspects of your behaviour. Conflict resolution does not have to be painful if the solution lies in our own hands. It could be as simple as changing what you say, how you say it or what you actually do.

This idea has huge currency when it comes to adapting your listening skills, for example.  Active listening is deliberate in seeking their version of events - without hesitation, deviation or even repetition of their previous crimes, such attentive listening can be really useful in dissipating potential conflict. If you can make the other person feel heard it is hard for them to maintain high levels of anger - why would they need to raise their voice if they are being listened to?

From your perspective, while this is a powerful means of handling the other person and keeping your communications joined up, it is important to acknowledge that this is not the same as agreeing with their version of events. 

After your attentive listening, you have earned the right to state your version of events. Keep things neutral and avoid  ‘buts’, ‘howevers’, nevertheless’s and fancier forms of the same rebuttal. Replace them with a pause, a full stop and a fresh new statement that does not begin with but. Try ‘and’ instead which builds on what has been said, rather than denies it. 

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Ideally, try to keep things short and hold a pause long enough for them to hear what you have said. If a batting back and forwards ensues – keep managing things in the same way. Stay rational, state your case without undermining their statements and hold the pause.

Removing the fickle finger of blame from the scene, means that your version of events is more likely to be heard too. Be the one to find the bridges between you – name the things you have in common rather than the issues that set you apart.

Find something, anything, in their view of the situation that you can authentically agree with. Alternatively, compliment them for something they deserve to be acknowledged for. As you pour oil on troubled waters you will be avoiding escalating potential disagreements.

At worst, you will have managed to keep things on a civil and professional basis - and at best you could be moving closer towards finding resolution with those you find most challenging.

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