Dealing with difficult people is challenging.
It’s draining, frustrating, stressful, and may even make you question the decisions you’ve made about how to do things.
This is especially hard at work. You typically can’t control who you work under, who is on your team, or who your clients are, but you still have to get the job done and remain professional. Often there is no escape -- you just have to figure it out.
Avoiding difficult people at work completely is nearly impossible (everyone -- even you! -- is difficult sometimes), so it's important to employ strategies to deal with difficult people as best you can and accomplish projects, navigate office politics, and stay productive. Just like forming a new habit, you can learn how to more effectively deal with difficult people.
Below, we’ll share strategies and techniques on how to deal with difficult people at work so that you can still get things done and your days can feel (at least a little bit) easier.
Why are people so difficult?
There are all sorts of reasons why someone may be difficult, and being difficult can be expressed in so many different ways. Often, people who are being difficult don’t realize how their actions are being perceived, because in their minds, they aren’t being difficult.
Here are just a few examples of difficult behavior:
- Someone who shoots down every idea or who can always give a reason why something won’t work.
- The complainer who balks and digs their feet in at any slight change, disruption, or hurdle.
- An explosive person, who you’re never quite sure isn’t about to start yelling or criticizing.
- Someone who has to have things done a very specific way, inflexibly.
- Indecisive people who can’t or won’t contribute to move a project forward for fear of being wrong, leaving extra work and higher stakes for everyone else.
- Those who are friendly in public, but who gossip or create negativity with some or all members of the group privately.
This list isn’t exhaustive of course! One of the biggest challenges in dealing with difficult people is that it’s all about perspective: yours and theirs.
A person who is afraid of confrontation might find a very straightforward person difficult to deal with, even though the straightforward person thinks they are just being clear and efficient. An office gossip might just think of themselves as chatty, while other people find their actions bring down morale.
Your relationship with the person matters as well. A difficult person in another department is someone you could probably just, for the most part, ignore. But if the difficult person in your life is your boss or close coworker, you’ll probably need to make some real changes to your approach with this person.
No matter what difficult person you face, keep in mind the strategies below and see what works best in different situations.
5 strategies for dealing with difficult people
One strategy does not fit all people or all situations, but the nice thing is that you can try all of them out and use what works best.
Here’s a place that reframing the narrative can really help. Dealing with difficult people can actually become a personal goal or challenge to take on, rather than a dreaded confrontation. Challenge yourself to improve your skills and think creatively.
It won’t always (or ever) feel fun, but imagine your sense of accomplishment when you little-by-little improve this relationship, which in turn, will improve your days at work.
1. Listen and stay calm. Often, the best strategy to deal with a difficult person is to simply give them space to talk and express themselves, all while you yourself remain calm, cool, and collected. Even if they seem unreasonable, irrational, or start to get angry, listening is really powerful because it gives you your own personal space within the interaction. By staying back and listening, you can remain somewhat detached emotionally. Your job is just to listen.
This works well for indecisive or quiet coworkers, as well, because they often simply choose not to engage for fear of not being listened to. By making a point of giving them your undivided attention, you give them a chance to express themselves and get more comfortable speaking up.
Listening is also an opportunity to learn about the other person's opinion (especially when paired with the strategy below). This is especially helpful when interacting with a client or a stakeholder that you serve. They might end up telling you exactly what they need -- which is much more helpful than if you tried to just guess on your own.
Just be careful if you’re using this strategy with someone who is difficult because they complain and are negative; at some point, it’s no longer productive to wallow in negativity and you need to distance yourself or set limits, e.g. you have a task to complete back at your desk, a call to make, question how they would fix the problem, avoid countering/challenging their thoughts or ideas, etc.
2. Use open-ended questions to understand what they really need or want. What is underneath the difficult behavior? What does this person want to gain or avoid?
Ask open-ended questions such as “tell me more so I can better understand” or “what does that mean to you” to try to see the situation from their perspective. Whether it’s a coworker or a client, listening and asking open-ended questions helps you to get closer to understanding what they value and prioritize so you can get through the layers of difficulty and find success together.
When you understand what motivates someone, you can better align your actions with that person to help them get more of what they want. You might find your grouchy boss has a grouchy boss of their own, and by asking open-ended questions, you can find ways to position yourself as an ally to your boss by helping them succeed with their own boss.
3. Be self-aware and manage your own thoughts and feelings. Faced with a colleague who is not interested in being a team player? Note how you physically feel in response. Is your heart racing, are you getting sucked into their negative spiral, or feeling emotional (angry, frustrated, exasperated)?
Other people’s bad behavior often brings out the worst in us too. Try these steps to keep yourself from engaging in a counterproductive conflict:
- Distance your emotions from theirs and try as best you can to be self-aware. It can be the hardest thing, but it will make it easier to respond. By keeping yourself in check, you won’t react or say something that escalates the situation or comes across as defensive.
- Don’t judge the person. You likely don’t know what the person has gone through or is going through. Focus on facts rather than emotion: what exactly is the problem and how can you get on the same page with this person, even in some small way?
To employ this strategy, you might have to put your thoughts and feelings on hold for a while, but it’s momentary! Breathe! It will pay off, and you can vent to a friend later on.
4. Reschedule and regroup. Instead of arguing or spending endless amounts of time trying to convince the difficult colleague or client that they are being unreasonable or that what you’re proposing can work, be flexible.
If the above strategies didn’t work as planned, or nothing has changed since the beginning of the encounter, suggest taking a step back to regroup and schedule to talk again later. This isn’t always an option (sometimes decisions have to be made quickly), but if at all possible, propose taking even just a few minutes to collect thoughts individually. If you have more time to distance everyone from the situation, even better.
When you do eventually regroup, be prepared with notes, an outline, or the Ink+Volt 1:1 Pad to serve as a guide for the conversation so that it doesn’t go off the rails. Write down topics to discuss, the hurdles you’re facing, questions you have, etc., and then figure out what is going to happen next. Turn an impromptu interaction with a difficult person into a productive meeting.
5. Debrief and talk about what happened. Whether or not dealing with a difficult person goes well, take a moment to reflect on the interaction. The more you can learn about the experience, the more prepared you will be for next time.
What went well, what could have gone better, what did you wish you did instead? Regardless of how you feel and all of the emotions: what can you learn and take away from the situation?
This might happen in the form of a journal entry or a call with a friend. The Ink+Volt Reflection Pad is a great way to process your reflection. There’s space to write and take notes, check in physically and mentally, and to assess yourself on 18 different topics. You could even use the pad immediately after the interaction and then use it to talk it out with another person later on, getting the benefit of their advice and insight too.
Take care of yourself
Dealing with difficult people can be exhausting. This is often a long process of changing the ways you view and approach different situations, so don’t expect to fix it all in one day. And don’t expect to change the other person forever. We are all learning and adapting all the time. Little by little, we can improve our work life by improving our relationships (even the hard ones).
Take time for yourself to decompress and engage in self-care along the way. Any steps that you take in improving your hardest relationships are worth celebrating, so make sure you give yourself space to relax and celebrate your growth too.