Dealing With Difficult People. Here’s Where You Start

In your personal life and in your professional life, difficult people abound. It’s a huge source of conflict in the workplace, especially when the person you are finding it hard to engage with constructively, is your manager.

Before delving into the ways that you can deal with difficult people, it’s a good idea to define what is meant by “difficult” and examining your own default response to them. That’s the starting point in any conflict and one of the elements needed to resolve it.

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Starting With You

One aspect of conflict is the perception that the other person is in the wrong and you are right. This may be the case. However, it is not usually black and white as we all have our own interpretations of the behaviour of others, especially when emotions are high.

What we often do is put people into categories when we feel wronged. They are stupid, idiotic, childish, irritating, demanding, rude, aggressive or difficult. It’s a judgment about the character of the other person and can be a justification for your position in the conflict.

If you are serious about resolving conflict, part of what is required is to drop your perceptions of the person and instead to focus on the facts of what happened.

We all display different behaviours in different contexts. Somebody who is aggressive and demanding at work may be sweet and compromising in their personal relationships. In other words, it’s the behaviour of the person in a particular context which needs to be addressed. Not their personal traits. Those, you may just have to accept.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Before tackling difficult behaviour, there are few crucial questions to ask yourself.

Is my response to difficult behaviour the problem? I used to have a colleague who worked with three female clients. He believed each of them were demanding, aggressive, difficult and irrational. None of his other clients seemed to cause him any problems. I was asked to intervene in a particularly fraught exchange which was leading to the end of their commercial relationship. All I heard from the client was a need to be acknowledged, understood and advised. She felt that there was a lack of respect for her and that her requests were not being heard. I pointed out to my colleague that three women were having this reaction to him. If you are having similar problems with several people, it’s time to examine your own behaviour in response to conflict to see if there is a pattern that you can break.

How can I get the best possible outcome from this scenario? The best possible outcome might be to walk away from the relationship. Alternatively, it could be that you need a work colleague to stop having tantrums when they are not getting their way. Think about what you need from the person and then go about devising a way to get it.

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Are you trying to change them and if so, will it work? Sometimes, we just don’t have the same way of communicating or behaving as another person and this is the reason we clash. Different cultures, for example, have a different view of punctuality and they express themselves very differently. Even if you confront the person about their difficult behaviour, it’s worth asking whether you are attempting to change a personal characteristic that is just different to yours. If that is the case, think about whether you will realistically achieve this goal.

If you decide they won’t change, can you adapt your behaviour instead? Face it, if you can’t change somebody, you have to accept them as they are. That doesn’t mean that you have to accept rude, insulting or offensive behaviour but it will help you to decide whether you want to confront the person, walk away from your relationship or change how you relate to them. Changing your own behaviour may mean listening actively, communicating differently and using strategies to indicate that certain types of behaviour will not result in an advantage.

What Is Difficult Behaviour?

Some types of behaviour are easier to tolerate than others. Here is a list of them in order of difficulty (although, you might have a different view!):


This type of behaviour is narcissistic. Usually, it would be classified as bullying, intimidation, violence or aggression. This may also include emotional manipulation,  dishonesty, as well as an unreasonable approach to conflict resolution. My advice is to get out of this relationship. If you are being managed by a narcissistic manager, find another job. If you are in a personal relationship with them, find the strength and means to leave them. It’s not easy and it can detrimentally affect your mental health and ruin your self-esteem. You are worth more than this and know that the narcissist is deeply wounded which is why they often aim to hurt others.


This refers to behaviour which has not benefited from refinement. It could include unclear or inadequate communication styles, a lack of flexibility, bad time management, a lack of empathy or an inability to listen or offer advice when requested. Their lack of skills will have an impact on you and how they relate to you. It may be for example, that you work with a manager who is unable to communicate to you clearly the task that he wants you to perform. You may have a colleague that does not work well in a team and fails to contribute or meet deadlines which jeopardises your project.


This behaviour is what you would expect from a child. It’s an immature way of relating to others. This manifests as somebody who has tantrums when they don’t get their way. They are often aggressive or rude in a professional context. They may be moody or sulky if they don’t get what they want or expect rewards for doing little work. They tend to blame you when things go wrong without looking at their own role and are unlikely to be aware of their behaviour and how it impacts you.

What difficult behaviour isn’t

It’s not different approaches, views, techniques or strategies to yours. For example, I pay attention to detail because that reflects my legal training. It may irritate some people when I review a document and point out all of their typos and spelling mistakes. It sometimes stops me from reflecting on the content of a document. This isn’t what I mean by difficult. This is just a difference which we may be able to accept by adapting our behaviour to them. It’s not intended to upset anyone (which is what I tell people on other end!) but I do want the document to be as professional and error free as possible.

Back to the Questions

Think about that difficult person who you are finding it hard to collaborate with, in whichever context. It will help you to go through those questions above to work out whether their behaviour is difficult or whether it’s your response to it that is the problem. From there, you could begin to think about whether to walk away from them, confront their behaviour directly or think of a strategy to deal with it.

In my next blog post, I’ll be suggesting ideas and ways of motivating people to change their behaviour.

I’d love , as always, to know your thoughts on this fascinating topic!

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