Key learning outcomes:

  • Understand that learning to deal with difficult people may increase your productivity.
  • Assess your own behaviour if you find you are dealing with difficult people on a regular basis.
  • Recognise the benefit of listening carefully and remaining calm in potentially heated situations.
  • Identify situations where it may be necessary to alert a superior to an employee’s obstructive behaviour.


We all at times have to deal with someone we find difficult. It might be someone at work, a family member or just someone we meet in our daily life. Learning how to deal with difficult people more effectively will not only make your life easier, but it will also help you to be more productive and successful when you are not having to overcome the hurdles these people put up. It is important to remember that the faster you recognise the signs that someone is going to be difficult, the faster you can react, so you can prevent the situation escalating or turning into a conflict. In this article we take you through some simple tips and tools you can use to deal with difficult people more effectively.

Understand what you can and cannot change

One of the first steps in dealing with difficult people more effectively is to understand that there are some things that you cannot change. You cannot change how someone else may behave, act or speak, but you can change how you react. There is an old saying “negativity loves a friend”. Often a difficult person is looking for someone to join them in their negative mindset. By not giving them the reaction they are looking for, you are already on the right track to dealing with them effectively.[wlm_ismember]

Watch out for patterns

If you find that you are confronted with difficult people on a regular basis, it is worthwhile taking some time to examine your own behaviours and actions. When you look back objectively on past situations where you felt someone was being difficult, you may decide that you could have behaved differently to defuse the situation. Watch out for instances where you have started to thrive on the drama of difficult situations and have added to the problem rather than being part of the solution.

Pick your battles

When you are confronted with a difficult person, it is worthwhile making a quick mental assessment before you react. Ask yourself the following questions:

If you never have to deal with the person again or if the person’s behaviour on this occasion is not going to affect your long-term relationship, it may be a better option to just get on with things rather than allowing the situation to turn into a confrontation. However, if allowing the behaviour to continue will have a long-term impact, then the sooner you deal with it the better.

Think before you speak

Sometimes when we are confronted by a difficult person or feel we are being personally attacked in some way, our natural instinct for “fight or flight” kicks in. It is important to stop and take a deep breath before reacting. Taking a few minutes to think about the best way to deal with a situation will often allow you to simmer down and act logically rather than emotionally. Your aim is to avoid escalating the situation into something worse and to ensure that you pick the best possible course of action.

Validate and listen

Often a person is being difficult in an effort to get their point across rather then being difficult just for the sake of it. The person may be very upset about something and emotions rather than logic are ruling their words and actions. By validating that you understand that they are upset and telling them that you want to listen, you will find that they will probably start to calm down. Make sure that you try to let them get their full story out before you give an answer or provide a solution. By ensuring that you listen to understand rather than just hear to respond,  you are more likely to find a solution or compromise.

Remain calm and polite

As mentioned previously, someone who is being difficult is often seeking a reaction. By remaining calm and being polite, you are more likely to be able to defuse the situation. It is important to remember that you need to be genuine; there is no point being overly “sweet” and “sugaring”. People are able to spot false niceness and it will only serve to irritate and inflame the situation further.

Seek help

If there is someone that you are having continual difficulties with and you cannot seem to manage them, you may need to seek advice. Think about who else the person deals with that does not seem to have the same issues. Talk to them confidentially to see if they can give you any advice on how to deal with the person more effectively. There is also the option of talking to a professional. There are coaches, mentors and counsellors in virtually every field these days and sometimes just by talking through your issue with someone not directly associated with it can give you new ideas and new ways to deal with the person and situation.

Confront in private

If you have an ongoing issue with someone, it is always best to confront the person in private. Do this when you are feeling calm and not in the heat of the moment or in the middle of dealing with a bigger situation. Think beforehand about potential solutions that will help your relationship in the longer term. This may seem hard to do especially if the difficult person is a superior at work or perhaps a family member, but it is important to remember that if nothing changes – nothing will change. Try to keep your language focused on how you feel and what you can do to help resolve things. When you are dealing with a difficult person, the last thing you want to do is to use statements about what they are doing wrong as this is only likely to inflame the situation.

Positive reinforcement

If you find that a person’s behaviour is erratic, it is wise to highlight the times when things do go well. For example, you may have a friend who is always very late for your meetings or outings. This might annoy you and make you feel awkward always having to wait for them to arrive. However, you may not feel comfortable confronting them about always being late. When they do arrive on time, you can reinforce this positive behaviour by saying something like “I know that you are very busy so thank you for being able able to make it on time. It is just so great to have the extra time to catch up”. Everyone loves positive reinforcement and it may encourage the person to arrive on time, next time. Once again it is important to only do this from a genuine standpoint, otherwise you can come off sounding false and patronising.

Take it further

In a situation where you are dealing with someone who is difficult and despite your efforts things have not improved, you might need to talk to their superior. This might be hard in a personal situation, but in business it may be necessary to alert a business owner or manager that one of their team is difficult to deal with. Most businesses will want to know that there is someone out there who is not presenting their business in the best light. Before you speak to the person ensure that you are calm and have your points clear in your mind or noted down on paper.

It might be time to let go

In a situation where you continually have to deal with a difficult person and all of your efforts have failed in trying to improve the situation, it might be time to say goodbye to this person. This might cause you some hassle while finding an alternative, but that is where you need to take control. Perhaps the business you are dealing with is convenient and the product is great, but the person is difficult. It is time to make a choice – either you make the decision to put up with the person or find an alternative. If this person is close to home such as a family member, you can work to limit the time you spend with them and use tactics such as ensuring you are not seated next to them at a family function. You may feel that removing yourself from the situation indicates failure or it is something that you do not feel you should do, but at the end of the day reducing the stress and angst in your life by not having to deal with a difficult person is a long-term win for you.[/wlm_ismember]

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