Dealing with Difficult People

Several years ago I went on a "Dealing with Difficult People" seminar. One of our number began the day by commenting rudely about what a waste of his time it was attending the course - he was busy enough at work - and then as the first hour passed his behaviour became progressively more difficult. By the time the course leader stepped in to stop him - explaining that the gentleman was an actor hired to bring more realism to the day - Mr Difficult had knocked over the coffee cups, ripped the posters off the walls and insulted each of the attendees personally. We had all sat by, refusing to respond or become involved and hoping that it would all be over soon. In retrospect, we were lucky that the tutor intervened before the actor throttled one of us with the sugar tongs.

And this example summons up why a difficult person, either in the family, a social group or the workplace, is often at their very worst by the time anyone takes action and stops them. This can result in years of family feuding or dismissal from your job.

Conventional wisdom (and research) says that good communication can improve relationships, even the most difficult ones. The opposite is also true, as poor communication can worsen an already bad situation. Listed below are examples of how to make a bad situation worse. How many of these have you experienced at home or in the workplace?

Avoiding Conflict Altogether:

Rather than discussing problems in a calm and respectful manner, some people just don't say anything until they are ready to explode, and then blurt it all out at once - loudly and often in front of an interested audience. This may seem to be the less stressful route during the "quiet" time, since someone with this behaviour pattern can see it as avoiding an argument altogether, but in the end can cause more stress and embarrassment to both sides. It is much healthier to address and resolve any problems.

Being Defensive:

It can be difficult to address another person's complaints with an objective eye and to have a willingness to understand the other person's point of view. A defensive person will steadfastly deny any wrongdoing and work hard to avoid looking at the possibility that they could be contributing to any problem. Denying responsibility may seem to alleviate stress in the short run, but creates long-term problems when other people don't feel listened to and unresolved conflicts and continue to grow.

Being too general:

When something happens that they don't like, some people then blow it out of proportion by making sweeping general statements. Avoid starting sentences with, "You always..." and "You never...", as in, "You never listen to me!" or "You never do things the way that works best for me!" Stop and think about whether or not this is really fair or true. Also, don't bring up past conflicts in a new situation that they don't relate to - stick to the point and stay logical.

Being Right:

It can be really damaging to dig your heels in and decide that there's a 'right' way to look at things and a 'wrong' way to look at things, and that only your way of seeing things is correct. Don't demand that other people see things the same way, and don't take it as a personal attack if they have a different opinion. Look for a compromise or agreeing to disagree, and remember that there's not always a 'right' or a 'wrong', and that two points of view can both be valid.


Instead of asking about their sparring partner's thoughts and feelings, people sometimes decide that they 'know' what the other person is thinking and feeling based only on their actions, and more damaging still will always assume it's negative and judgemental, (For example, deciding a persistent late-comer to a meeting doesn't care enough about the meeting subject to be on time, or that a boss who criticised you unfairly several weeks ago as a one-off when they were tired and unwell now hates you and devalues your work. Step back, calm down and look at the situation rationally.

Don't Listen:

Some people interrupt, roll their eyes, and rehearse what they're going to say next instead of really listening to what is being said by the other person. If this is you then you are keeping yourself from seeing their point of view, and faced with such bad manners who would want to listen to yours? Stop blanking and start listening.

Playing the Blame Game:

Other people handle an argument of any sort by blaming the other person for the situation. These people see admitting any weakness on their own part as losing face, and will thus avoid doing so at all costs. This situation will often need a third party to intervene and see fair play so that you both get the opportunity to talk things through and come up with a solution that helps you both.

Making Character Attacks:

It is easy to take negative action from an individual and blow it up into a major personality flaw. One unsavoury joke at the last staff party doesn't make someone a dyed in the wool bigot, just as one late-for-work-with-a -hangover morning seven months ago doesn't make somebody a secret drinker. Even if they were does this need hauling out into the open when what you are really disagreeing about is the cleaning rota?. Remember to respect the person, even if you don't like their behaviour, and don't badmouth them assuming they will never hear about it. They will.

It is worth noting that nobody gets on with everyone all of the time. There will be arguments and disagreements whoever you are and whatever you do, the secret is to handle these situations as well as you can. And if you see the sort of person that we have discussed above in your opposition - or even in yourself! - then hopefully you can start dealing with your difficult person.