Tips and Techniques to Manage Difficult People

How To Manage Difficult People Q&A

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Q. Why is it important to manage difficult people?

A. Research tells us that we spend 70-85% of our waking time, interacting with other people. These interactions take place at work when we’re dealing with customers, colleagues or staff. In our personal life, we interact with husbands, wives, partners, children, friends, family and neighbours. Other people are the most important factors in our lives.

We allow, and you will note I say allow, these relationships with other people to decide how happy or unhappy we will be. Sad to say, many of these relationships are not good, be they in our personal or working life. The problem is – we just don’t communicate well with each other.

Your level of communication will determine how successful you will be with others, emotionally, personally and socially. It will also have a huge impact on your financial success. However, most importantly, your level of success, in terms of your happiness, emotional wellbeing or anything else you desire, is a direct result of how you communicate with yourself.

Q. What do we mean by a difficult person?

A. It could someone who bullies, manipulates, annoys you and causes you unhappiness and stress. They say or do things you don’t like or find offensive and unacceptable. And, of course, this creates problems in the workplace. There are a whole range of behaviours that we may classify as difficult. I could list at least sixty, but not all of these are ‘difficult’ for everyone. Some people may regard a ‘complainer’ as a difficult person, whereas others couldn’t care less if someone complains or not.

Statistically, only about two per cent of the population could be regarded as genuinely difficult. If you’re having a problem with a difficult person, what you’re really experiencing is conflict. It will make life easier if you identify if you are dealing with conflict or a genuinely difficult person. Truly difficult people are rare, and you may have to accept that it isn’t personal, and they may just be that way. Conflict is personal and we may have to accept that we are part of the tension that is created.

Q. Why are people difficult?

A. Stress can cause people to be difficult and they can get stressed for all sorts of reasons. Often it’s just their inability to deal with aspects of their job and their personal life. They tend to blame other people and circumstances, but most often they have the answers within themselves.

It’s fair to say that people sometimes have problems that are out with their control. A death in the family, breakdown of a marriage or a relationship, problems with children, or they may have health issues.

It’s often the case in the workplace, that people find difficulty in doing their job and in finding help. Although they may not admit to this, they might feel inadequate and express their frustration by complaining, being negative and difficult.

Some people are not conscious of how they’re perceived by others. They believe that their behaviour is quite normal and are unable to understand why some people see it otherwise.

We all see the world differently from each other. But some people’s programming causes them to become annoyed when others don’t see it as they see it.

Some people’s lack of self-confidence and belief in themselves, often causes them to be angry at the world. They believe that other people are out to do them down and that everything is against them.

That person in your team, who gives you all sorts of problems which are often difficult to understand, may just be seeking acknowledgement. Withdrawing or failing to provide acknowledgement, either physical or psychological, will cause people to become difficult.

Q. Do you change you or change them?

A.  It has to be said; you’re not going to change them, until you change you! It’s not about changing your personality; it’s about making adjustments to your behaviour, which will make your life much easier. You need to develop your understanding of your own and other people’s behaviour. You need to take charge of your behaviour and not let other people decide it for you.

Improve your listening skills and be aware of the impact of your tone of voice and body language.

Passive and aggressive behaviours are your inbuilt programmes, assertiveness needs to be learned.

It’s also important to be likeable; selling yourself will minimise the number of difficult people you have to deal with.

Q. How do you prevent people being difficult in the first place?

A. It is inevitable that you’ll have to manage a difficult person sometime in your life and you probably believe you communicate well with other people. Nevertheless you may be inadvertently saying, or doing things that may exacerbate a situation and make your life more difficult.

When you communicate with another person it’s important to remember that human beings are almost totally driven by their emotions. It therefore makes sense to communicate on both a human and business level when dealing with another person. This is about all the simple things like using their name, being warm and friendly; listening and showing that you’re listening. It’s about increasing your ‘likeability factor’; it’s harder for people to be difficult if they feel that you genuinely care and are interested in them.

It’s also important not to get ‘hooked’ by the other person’s behaviour. Stay out of it emotionally and don’t rise to the bait.

Some words are better than others. Telling the other person to ‘calm down’ or that they ‘cant’ or that they’ll ‘have to’ do something, can often exacerbate a situation.

It’s also important to be aware that the other person may not see a situation they way you see it. They see the world differently from you and believe that what they say, how they behave and their expectations are all acceptable.

Q. How do you assert yourself?

A. Assertive communication can make all the difference to your personal success and your ability to manage difficult people. It’s more than just learning to talk in a different way; it’s about – Thinking positively – Feeling confident – Behaving assertively.

To develop your assertiveness, you don’t have to change your personality, only your behaviour and thoughts. In assertiveness training; we talk about, Submissive, Aggressive and Assertive behaviour. Submissive and Aggressive behaviour relates to your inbuilt fight or flight programs that rescue you from problem situations.

Assertive behaviour will help you communicate clearly and confidently your needs, wants and feelings to other people without abusing in any way their human rights. It is more positive, it will produce better results when managing a difficult person, and it can be learned. It is worth studying ‘Broken Record’ technique and ‘Negative Assertion’.

Broken Record is the skill of being able to repeat over and over again in a calm relaxed and assertive way; whatever it is you want or need. This continues until the other person concedes or agrees to negotiate with you.

Negative Assertion technique is used primarily to deal with criticism from a difficult person. This is where you calmly agree with the true criticism of your negative qualities.

Using these techniques will make you life so much easier when dealing with a difficult person.

Q. Are there other particular techniques you can use?

A. If you’re faced with a person who is emotionally charged up, then you first have to manage these emotions before you can deal with the problem. In other words, deal with their feelings, and then deal with their problem. You interact on a Human level to deal with the feelings, and a Business level to deal with the problem. Human level responses include: being warm and friendly, focussing on the other person, listening actively, using the person’s name appropriately, and being flexible.

Using empathy is an excellent technique for diffusing a difficult person’s problem behaviour. It has to be an absolutely genuine response, if you try to fake it, the other person will realise, and you’ll end up with an even more difficult person. This isn’t about agreeing with the difficult person’s situation; it’s about accepting that their feelings and opinions are okay for them.

When dealing with a difficult member of staff, you could ignore their behaviour, you could reprimand them or you could coach. Coaching is the best option. It’s not some kind of touch-feely approach. It’s about finding out the cause of the difficult behaviour, and discussing with the staff member how to put it right. If you do it well, you will have a happier staff member who performs positively and doesn’t give you a hard time.

Looking for the positive is another way to manage a staff member who’s being difficult or negative. Try concentrating on what they do well and tell them about it. Look for something positive in what they do no matter how trivial. There’s no need to go over the top, but say something positive rather than negative. Spend less time discussing negative issues or even ignore them. It’s not uncommon for managers to invest 90 per cent of their energy responding to negative performance and only 10 per cent strengthening positive performance.


Managing difficult people is a challenge we all face at some time in our life and prevention will always be better than cure. It’s important to choose your behaviour and not allow the difficult person to choose it for you. Don’t allow yourself to be Hooked by what other people say or do; always think before opening your mouth or taking action. Choose to be Assertive when you need to; allowing yourself to be Submissive or Aggressive, will make life much harder for you.

When faced with a difficult person, be it a colleague or a customer; always be aware that they may see the world differently from you. Empathise with their viewpoint and offer solutions that ensure a win-win outcome.

You can find more information to help you manage difficult people in this book: 

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Posted in: Customer service, Difficult people, Leadership

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