A Guide To Dealing With Difficult People

We’ve all been there. Be it work, school or Thanksgiving dinner, we’ve all found ourselves in situations where we have been forced to interact with people we find to be “difficult”. For many of us, we’d rather eat glass than have to deal with challenging people like this but how we survive and, dare I say thrive, in these situations can separate us from the pack in both business and in life.

Identifying Difficult People.

Difficult people can take many forms. “Difficulty” can manifest itself in quite a few ways, oftentimes, including people who spread rumors, who find the negative in everything, those who rarely cooperate, or who don’t value the input and opinions of others. They may find every opportunity to create problems or they may simply use passive resistance to waylay your best efforts to move your agenda forward.

At the end of the day, defining “difficult” is a uniquely personal thing. What is challenging to me may be a breeze for you. Understanding your personality, preferences and triggers can help you to recognize the types of people and situations that irritate you.

David Brown describes several types of difficult people and how their behaviors serve to irritate others like a course grade of sandpaper:

  • Perfectionists. If you looking for quick results, perfectionists can be a source of frustration.
  • Control freaks. When you want to do things your way, overly controlling types can be a source of irritation as well.
  • Creative people. They’re essential if generating ideas is the plan but can cause frustration when you just want to get to delivering a simple result.
  • Shapers. Although shapers may seek to take over as and when they see fit, they can really help drive action.
  • Aggressive or defensive people. Assertion can help move a group forward. Aggression of defensiveness can have the opposite effect on a group’s dynamic.
  • Submissive people. The lack of confidence and fear of failure that many submissive types display can be a source of frustration as well. 

Identifying the Issue.

Turning the situation inward and analyzing your triggers and reactions to these situations can help you to be prepared and self-aware when they arise. Elizabeth B. Brown shares several questions that you may reflect on to help you understand the root issue of why that person at work or life is making you insane:

  • What emotional tornadoes does the difficult person in your life spin off?
  • How do you react to a difficult person in your life?
  • How does your difficult person react to your reactions?
  • If the other person is the problem, are you growing unhealthy actions and reactions in response to him or her?
  • Are you the difficult person driving others to reactive behavior?
  • How do others react to your actions and responses?

Feeding into our frustrations when dealing with a difficult person can become a vicious cycle. We tend to see or hear an interaction and then interpret that action based, not on fact, but on our assumptions. Then we react. Unfortunately, we usually don’t have all of the information as to why an individual may be showing up the way they are and, in the absence of factual information, we tend to fill in the blanks with our own theories about what might be going on.

Mitigating These Situations.

In order to help prevent this from happening it can be extremely helpful to separate the facts from our assumptions. Additionally, it can be beneficial to separate ourselves and our reactions from the negative emotions we may be feeling in the moment. This is easier said than done but those of us who are able to get to this place can better arm themselves with the superpower of having meaningful and productive interactions even with people who make us cringe. Tony Schwartz recommends using three different lenses to look at the world:

The lens of realistic optimism.

Using this lens requires asking yourself two simple questions when you feel you’re being treated badly or unfairly.

  • What are the facts in this situation?
  • What’s the story I’m telling myself about those facts? What do I really want as an outcome?

The reverse lens.

This lens requires viewing the world through the lens of the person who triggered you. It doesn’t mean sacrificing your own point of view but rather widening your perspective. With the reverse lens, you ask yourself:

  • What is this person feeling, and in what ways does that make sense?
  • Where’s my responsibility in all this?

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the most powerful ways to reclaim your value, when it feels threatened, is to find a way to appreciate the perspective of the person you feel devalued by. It’s called empathy.

The long lens. Sometimes your worst fears about another person turn out to be true. He is someone who bullies you unreasonably and seeing it from his perspective doesn’t help. She invariably takes credit for your work. When this occurs, begin with this question:

  • Regardless of how I feel about what’s happening right now, how can I grow and learn from this experience?

When dealing with difficult people, regardless of type, there are steps you can take to make the best of the situation and work to find a productive outcome.

Managing your reactions.

It is all about breathing. Slow, deep breathing actually triggers something at the bottom of your spine called the Vegus nerve, which sends neurotransmitters to brain that actually calm you down.

Then, take a moment to reflect on how you feel. Ask yourself questions about how you can respond to difficult person, or how you can create a good outcome from the situation. While this seems like overkill, this is an essential step to getting your brain out of its instinctual response (things like sharpness, negativity, and defensiveness). Forcing yourself to think of ways to create a good outcome makes your brain go into a more positive mode of thinking.

Leveraging some self-control.

Know yourself. Having a clear sense of self, what causes you tension and where your limits are can serve you well when interacting with people that you find to be difficult. Staying calm and developing your awareness and emotional intelligence skills can help you to manage your reactions to frustrating situations.

Seek to understand the situation. Gaining some clarity by asking clarifying questions while managing your own reactions can serve to help find a mutually satisfactory outcome. Reflecting on what you would determine as a satisfactory outcome before getting into an interaction with a difficult person can help you maintain focus on what really matters.

Stick to the facts and acknowledge emotions. Using examples and stating facts as opposed to interpretations can help keep interactions with people you find difficult in check. Paraphrasing and checking for accurate understanding can also show that you hear what people are saying and that you are doing your level best to work effectively with them. Responding and stating your emotions or the impact that the person is having on you based on their behavior, if delivered correctly, can sometimes be the nudge that someone needs to realize that they are rubbing you the wrong way.

Seek the advice of others. You’re not alone in this. You are not the only person who has ever had to productively interact with a difficult person. Seeking out the advice of others or finding someone to help coach you through it can be quite beneficial. Sometimes, talking it out can help you reframe the situation to a place where you can facilitate a more positive outcome.

Keep records, if necessary. Sometimes, things can be so abrasive that you run the risk of hitting an end-state that you never intended. If things are to the point where interactions are toxic, it may be time to start making intentional effort to begin documenting things. If things go south, at least you have a good record of what led to that place.

What Do You Do When None of This Works?

So, you’ve tried everything and you are set on a course of realizing that nothing is going to work. At the end of the day, my colleague Shawn Overcast said it best in an article she penned entitled, Weathering the Organizational Storm– Take care of yourself.

“By modeling well-being practices, you not only do good for your own mind and body, but you eliminate second-hand stress for all those around you. Think about the classic instruction we all receive when preparing to take-off on an airplane, “secure your own mask before assisting others.” If you haven’t taken care of yourself, you won’t have the clarity or energy to help those around you. One way to intentionally take care of yourself is to practice mindfulness, if even for a few minutes at a time. The field of psychology gives us research that focusing the mind promotes calmness, reduces anxiety, and increases productivity. And more and more business examples tell us that it matters to our organizational performance too.”

The speed of the world around us can put any number of stressors on us and the people with whom we interact. Unfortunately, we all handle stress differently and it can often manifest in ways that are unproductive when dealing with others in our lives. When faced with such people, having a clear understanding of how you react and what tools you can employ to attempt to keep things productive can mean the difference between success and a painful, annoying and awkward failure.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.com.

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Chris Cancialosi

Chris Cancialosi

Partner at gothamCulture
Chris Cancialosi is a recognized expert in the field of leadership and organizational development with particular focus on the leader’s role in shaping high-performing culture.
Chris effectively combines his operational field experience with his knowledge of organizational psychology to provide unique and practical solutions to today’s ever changing business landscape.
Chris Cancialosi