7 Tips For Working with Difficult People

We all have to work with difficult people from time to time. While their behavior varies from being manipulative, dominating, attacking, undermining, controlling, dismissive, confronting, negative, unreliable, critical, or dependent – to name a few – the result is the same. These people cause stress in our lives and hamper our work performance.

It is easiest to understand why others are difficult by asking that same question of ourselves. What motivates us to be difficult to others? Usually it has to do with wanting to get our needs met, and find success in the past by using these undesirable traits.

Difficult people are everywhere. At work they can come in the shape of boss, colleague or customer. At home they can come in the shape of spouse, in-law, PTA president, or neighbor. But rather than allowing the difficult people to negatively impact on our lives, we can work at developing productive techniques for relating to such people.

Whether they decide to change is their decision. You have no control over them. What you do have control over is how you choose to react to them.

7 suggestions for reacting to difficult people:

1. Ignore the behavior. That’s right. Don’t provide them with an audience when they become difficult. By paying attention to the appropriate behavior and ignoring the bad, you will be reinforcing the conduct you want them to exhibit around you. In time, this may help to modify or even extinguish the negative behavior.

2. Use empathy. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understand their point of view. By doing so, your body language will be different, indicating more acceptance, tolerance, and openness. You will be breaking the pattern of responding to their difficult behavior with your defensiveness and resistance.

3. Respond to them differently. If their anger has typically elicited an angry response from you, then try responding in a quiet, less emotional manner.

4. Find something positive. Listen for something, even a thread of something, in what they are talking about and give them positive feedback. This will help the difficult person feel more connected with you and more likely to be able to listen to you in response.

5. Establish boundaries. Draw that imaginary line in the sand to protect yourself from abuse, and do not allow the other person to impinge on you in an unhealthy way.

6. Scrutinize yourself. Identify why the other person’s behavior pushes your buttons. Is your reaction a learned behavior that could be substituted for another, more productive, behavior? Are you doing something to provoke the other person?

7. Don’t personalize it. Don’t assume that the other person’s difficult behavior is about you, unless you are told so. This attitude will help you detach emotionally from the other person’s actions and view it more objectively.

Eileen Lenson