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Dealing with Difficult People

Tactics and Tests of Patience

“Difficult people are the greatest teachers” – Pema Chödrön, American Tibetan Buddhist

Yeah, but that doesn’t mean we go out looking for them. Yet all too often they seem to have a way of finding us.

By and large, most people whom you encounter throughout your day are the fairly decent and reasonable sort. If we treat them as we ourselves would like to be treated, we will get along rather well. Most of us just want to be heard, appreciated for our hard work, and shown respect. When there is a conflict, ideally we will listen to one another, learn the other’s perspective, find common ground, and work together towards a mutually beneficial solution.

Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes people are difficult, if not downright impossible, to work with. So how do we best handle them, especially if in a work situation we have no other choice? There are a number of options, depending on the circumstances.

But first, ask ourselves WHY are they difficult? Could it be due to stress or illness? If so, hopefully their situation is temporary and can be resolved with understanding and a little bit of time. With some, however, it could just be the person’s inherent nature to be contrary and uncooperative, in which case what you experience is what you’re always going to get - and it’s probably not going to change any time soon.

There are a number of tactics you can use when dealing with a difficult person. First and foremost, start with yourself. Yes, self-discipline can go a long away if the combative individual is looking to start an argument.

Stay calm.

Your demeanor may de-escalate the situation right then and there. It’s harder to rail against someone who doesn’t engage in a shouting match. Eventually, the other person will run out of steam, feel that they were heard (and by everyone within shouting distance), and had made their point. They may be more receptive to a true conversation after venting.

Understand the other person’s intentions.

You may not always know what is going on in someone else’s life, but sometimes the clues are there in the way you’ve seen them go about their work or interact with others. Really listen to what they say; most people will appreciate the effort. Behavior is often triggered for a reason, and if we can see a pattern or know some history, we can better understand where they’re coming from.

Explain your position.

Understanding the reasoning behind your position may help the other person understand where you’re coming from and thereby defuse the situation. This is the inverse of the earlier suggestion to try to understand the other person’s intentions.

Focus not on personal qualities but on what can be achieved together.

Focus on the goal and a mutually beneficial solution, or at least a resolution that meets the other person halfway. Keep the conversation on the overall objective without devolving into remarks about each other’s behavior. Revisiting unresolved past difficulties and stirring up negative feelings is not going to help you resolve today’s problem.

Don’t be defensive, listen to them.

This can be most challenging, especially if accusations of bad judgement or other disparaging remarks are lobbed at you throughout your “conversation.” Stay calm, as mentioned earlier, show them that you’re actively listening, and oftentimes you’ll have the opportunity to present your side of the story.

But … sometimes none of this works. In that case, here are a few ways of taking more direct action and slaying, no, re-training the dragon. (No need to unnecessarily upset PETA.)


Accommodate the person in such a way to assuage their ego, while removing the obstacle they present. It’s giving something to get something. I’ll give two examples. The first occurred while my husband and I were negotiating the purchase of our home from the builder, who saw himself more as a craftsman than a homebuilder/businessman. He was also a very difficult person to deal with, changing minor terms and conditions on us, and butting heads with my husband until I stepped in to sincerely compliment his artistic taste and fine craftsmanship. I think that’s what he truly wanted to hear, because he immediately became easier to work with and we closed the sale.

A second example came from early in my corporate career when I was the junior member of a two-person team charged with pioneering a new systems design methodology throughout our company. The senior person saw our teamwork as a rivalry and went out of her way to undermine my credibility and convince management to give her the choice international assignments. I tried talking and working with her on joint projects, but nothing changed. So, I switched tactics and added her name as co-author to an article I was writing for our company’s engineering journal about the methodology and its successes. She was totally taken aback by the gesture; the credit gave her the authority and recognition she was seeking, and she immediately backed down and became easier to work with. And I got the European assignment I was angling for.


Most people just want to be heard, but some are given to subjecting others to endless complaints, gossip, or even diatribes against someone or something that they believe has done them wrong. In this case, I do my best to ignore or avoid them altogether. If you’re in a work or family situation where this is not possible, be cordial, but still distance yourself. Establish boundaries of how and when you must interact with them. If they challenge you or press you for an explanation, tell the offending individual that you don’t engage in gossip, that you prefer to focus on the positives rather than the troubles in life, or that you have to get back to work or some other duty. I’ve found that a little nod or smile in acknowledgement, a brief greeting, and a quick “excuse me” often does the trick.

Walk away

Some people will just not be ignored. Especially those who are in a power of authority over you. If you can’t simply avoid or manage the, you’ll need to take more direct action if you don’t want to remain in a toxic environment. Sometimes that means leaving a job.

A software company I worked for was acquired by a much larger corporation with a less than sterling reputation in the industry. The internal climate soon proved intolerable. The branch manager was a micro-manager to an extreme degree and given to sudden outbursts of temper and irrationality. He could not be reasoned with, corporate executive staff was slow to intervene, and people left in droves. The company lost many valuable employees who saw no other option than to walk away


Sometimes you just have to stand your ground, fight an adversary in court or a bully on the playground, and demonstrate your strength and resilience. There are those difficult individuals who respect nothing less and will not back down without a confrontation. If you go this route, prepare for battle: gather the pertinent facts and evidence, line up your allies, prepare your arguments and strategies, and determine how far you can and are willing to go in this fight. It’s also good to develop an exit strategy if things are not going your way. Have a back-up plan and alternative goals if you need to broker an agreement or find a means to escape.

Appease/Give In

In a confrontation, no one likes to be in the weaker position with little to no available favorable options. Occasionally, concessions have to be made to keep an aggressive power at bay in the hopes of attaining peace or an acceptable resolution. In this case, there is no win-win for both parties; one side is far stronger or more influential than the other and does not need to give anything to the weaker party to conclude the matter.

When the difficult person is in a position of power and you have little hope of prevailing, but much to lose by taking them on, you may decide that it’s just not in your best interests to pursue the matter any further. Part of choosing your battles wisely is knowing your breaking point and how much you are willing to lose or ultimately concede, if you don’t come out on top. Perhaps pursuing the matter is just not worth the time and effort you’ll need to spend on it, and it prevents you from doing something more productive or enjoyable.

I have a relative who was recently in this exact situation. Yes, he could have taken a business partner to court, spending quite a lot of money, time, and effort to secure a fairer settlement, but doing so would have prevented him from moving forward with more lucrative and satisfying projects. And in the process, his life would be made more complicated and miserable than the dispute was worth to him. It was better for him to concede the point than to further engage a partner who was revealed to be a very difficult and unreasonable person.


The old toddler tactic! Or if you’ve seen the movie “Up,” you’ll know the reference.

Redirect the difficult person with a change of conversation, a relevant question that they’ll want to answer, or something more interesting to focus on. It works to keep a small child from danger: distract a curious toddler away from the pot boiling on the stove with a toy or activity, like banging a wooden spoon against different sized plastic bowls.


Once in a while, you may be in a position where you feel at risk. Hopefully, you’re never alone in an unsafe area – there’s safety in numbers, even in this time of proper social distancing. Don’t cower in fear or play the victim, that only signals that to the perpetrator that you are easy prey. If possible, call or signal for help and move to a safer, more populated area as quickly as you can.

I’m a small, petite woman who’s been aggressively approached a few times in malls, streets, and even online. Once, I discovered my little girl was being stalked online in a children’s chess competition forum by an aggressive adult man. You can bet that Mama Bear was not afraid to respond with strength: I called the FBI, who succeeded in tracking down the perpetrator. For myself, I’ve turned around to fiercely confront guys, telling them point blank to back down and leave me alone. (Fortunately, always in public places where a loud, forceful tone proved to be effective.) The same applies to online stalkers, plus you have the ability to block and sometimes report them. But use threats judiciously and with common sense; too many aggressors are packing or may have accomplices hidden from view.

For instances in more subdued and less dangerous business settings, it may be enough to tell the difficult person that management will be informed of their behavior if it continues or that they will be held accountable for violating company policy (if that applies). I wouldn’t call to their face such an action a threat, but more of a promise or a natural consequence of their actions to restore proper professional behavior. If you’re in management, never threaten an employee, no matter how difficult the person. Follow company guidelines to warn them of their mistakes, perhaps place them on probation, guide them towards proper business etiquette, and clearly explain the consequences if they don’t self-correct within a defined time period.

Self Care

You are less likely to be drawn into a negative exchange when your physical and emotional defenses are at 100%. Get enough sleep, exercise regularly, eat healthy foods, and drink plenty of water during the day. Most of us are pretty aware that insufficient sleep can leave us cranky, sluggish, and temperamental. But emotional stress builds when we become dehydrated, too, so don’t wait until you’re very thirsty before reaching for that water bottle. Mentally, emotionally, or physically … assaults are best defended against when you’re well protected.

Difficult people may not number among our favorite teachers in life, but we CAN mitigate the damage they cause, and thereby improve our own characters in the process.

Disclaimer: No dragons were harmed in the process of creating this blog.