Dealing with Difficult People

Dealing with difficult people is a part of life. The good news that these difficult people don’t have to control you or your emotions.

When you feel offended by someone’s words or deeds, consider viewing the situation in multiple ways. For example, I may be tempted to think that a co-worker is ignoring my messages, or I can consider the possibility that he has been very busy, has family problems, has heard bad news about his health, or simply that he may have a hearing loss. When we avoid personalizing other people’s behaviors, we can perceive their expressions more objectively.

Remember, people do what they do because of their situation, more often than because of us—or what we do. Resist assuming the worst, which prompts negative thinking and feelings. Remember the adage: Assumptions are the cause of many screwups. By widening our perspective on a situation, we can reduce the possibility of misunderstandings.

Should You Confront Difficult People?

Not all difficult people we face require direct confrontation. Here are two common scenarios and some simple advice for how to deal with them non-confrontationally.

  • The first is when someone has temporary, situational power over you. For example, if you’re on the phone with an unfriendly customer service representative, as soon as you hang up and call another agent, this representative will no longer have power over you.
  • Another situation in which you might want to think twice about confrontation is when you derive a certain benefit by putting up with a certain amount of difficult behavior. For example, you might try to have patience with an annoying co-worker because the person is really good at providing analyses for your team. It’s helpful to remember that most difficult people have positive qualities, especially if you know how to elicit them.

Strategies for Dealing with Difficult People

If certain people constantly tick you off, calmly let them know that their manner of behavior or communication is a problem for you. Avoid accusatory language and instead try the “When you . . . I feel . . .” approach.  For example, “When you cut me off in meetings, I feel you don’t value my contributions.” Then take a moment and wait for a response. You may find that the other person didn’t realize you weren’t finished speaking, or your colleague was so excited about your idea that she enthusiastically jumped into the conversation.

Another approach is to interrupt the pattern by asking a question completely off-topic. Remember the strategy: The person who asks the question controls the conversation. This technique will allow you to approach the situation proactively, rather than defensively or reactively.

Finally, the best approach for dealing with difficult people is to surround yourself with people who are supportive. Then, when you do find yourself interacting with a difficult person, others will often come to your defense, prompting the difficult person to become more cooperative.


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