Five Ways To Deal With Difficult People

I am taking a break from writing for a few days to evaluate the second half of 2012 and for a speaking engagement in Southern California. While I’m away, I’m re-posting some of my most popular posts from the last year. I hope you enjoy reading or re-reading these posts. I’ll be back and better than ever on July 16, 2012!

What do you do about the difficult people in your organization, on your team, or in your group? Chances are, you’ve run into a few people who you just can’t get along with. People who seem intent on being unhappy and difficult no matter what you try to do. I’ve had students in my office, having come face-to-face with a difficult person. They’re surprised that someone else would treat them harshly or act in a difficult manner. These students sit there in disbelief and wondering: What do I do? As I reflect with them on the situation, I ask them to be mindful of a couple of things: First, I want them to realize the reality that there are people out there who simply don’t share the desire to get along with others. They either aren’t aware of what normal social interaction looks like or they don’t care what “normal” is. You can’t always avoid these people and you probably won’t be able to change them. Basically, I don’t want my student leaders to be continually shocked when they run into difficult people. Plus, I don’t want them to be overly influenced by the other person’s negativity. Second, I want them be aware that every person’s behavior boils down to a choice he or she makes. Just because a person chooses to live in a way that causes friction with others, we don’t have to respond in kind. We get to choose to act differently according to a higher set of ideals. I encourage each of us to learn how to stay strong in the midst of confrontive behavior and not lower our standards. Some people are caught in destructive cycles of behavior. Don’t fall into their trap. Some Of The Ways Difficult People Are Difficult Difficult people may manifest themselves in a number of ways, as you’ve probably experienced. You may find that these people…

  • operate with a double agenda
  • struggle with anger
  • have low self-esteem
  • try to manipulate
  • appear arrogant
  • can’t tell the truth
  • need to control everything
  • focus solely on themselves

There may be other ways that difficult people have been difficult to you. Whatever the situation is, there are some healthy ways you can deal with the issue in a positive and professional manner. Sometimes, a student leader may feel cornered or be tempted to get defensive when going toe to toe with a difficult person. If anything, these types of interactions take a lot of energy and we often feel compelled to give in to their demands just to get away from the situation. I want to offer the following five techniques for engaging a difficult person while keeping necessary boundaries. These are strategies that help an individual focus on the issue at hand instead of getting wrapped up in the negative emotions or the encounter.

1. Name that tune.

This person is acting a certain way because there is a problem. Help to diffuse the situation a bit by letting them know you recognize there is a problem. This can keep the confrontation from becoming larger than it has to be. When you state that you know there’s a problem (even naming the problem), it may throw the difficult person off guard. He is probably looking to argue or manipulate something and here you are, acknowledging the issue. By showing the other person that you recognize he is upset (even if his anger is illogical from your perspective), you are demonstrating that he is a person of value to you.

2. Mirror the message.

By this, I mean, repeat back — word for word — what the difficult person has said. When people hear their own words repeated back to them — especially irrational or irresponsible words — they may be caught off guard by the reality of what they have said and may have to rethink it. If their statement is full of emotion or venom, restating it also buys you some time to consider what you should say next; how you should respond. You might be tempted to retaliate in a like manner which would only play into their hand. You need to move the conversation to a more logical and objective discussion, and put the burden back on the difficult person who has made a critical or irrational statement.

3. Put their words into your own words.

Difficult people may not know how they’re coming across. By rewording what the person has said, it causes him to reflect on the deeper meaning of it. One way to do this is to respond by saying, “So, what you’re really saying is …” Sometimes reflecting the intentions of a person’s statements in this way must make them reconsider what their words really mean – and how they’re being heard. It also helps a difficult person to realize that his meaning is communicated more through how he says something rather than what he’s said.

4. Get down to the core.

Difficult people will use a variety of tactics, one of which is speaking around an issue. Try to summarize as quickly as possible what this person is trying to get at. If you can crystallize the issue into a clear and concise idea, you’ll be better able to disconnect it from the irrational aspects of your conversation. It may also help you find out if there is a real issue in the first place or if the person is simply being difficult.

5. Ask questions.

When someone lashes out at us or puts us into a defensive posture, we may want to fight back. One of the ways to keep from being pulled into an emotionally-charged exchange is to ask the difficult person a question about what she said. A properly placed question can stop a difficult person in middle of her tirade and refocus the conversation back towards productive dialogue. For example, if a difficult person accuses you of something ludicrous, respond by asking, in a nonthreatening way, “What are you trying to tell me?” Once we are able to move past our surprise of having to deal with difficult people, we can begin to use these techniques with greater effectiveness. Don’t get caught up in the trap of playing the games they do. If you feel yourself losing control of your emotions, simply remove yourself from the situation for a moment. Ultimately, recognize difficult people and their words and actions for what they are and work at disconnecting yourself emotionally from the irrational behavior of others. You’ve been called on to lead people (not all of them will be easy to get along with). Be faithful to do what you have been called to do, and resist the temptation of allowing difficult people to derail your faithful efforts in leading them.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Ryan Schmidt

    I like #4… and also most of the time the root issue is the person feels insecure because of something completely different than the issue at hand. So, if you get to the core, you also know how to address the insecurity that they have.

    In addition, to #4, I really think difficult people do not always understand how their actions/words are perceived by people. So, once I get to the core, I think its important to tell them… “You are doing this, but understand how those around you are perceiving you”.

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