What are some good ways to respond to difficult people?

by Sam on March 23, 2010

One-Minute Answer:  Boss? Colleague? Direct report? Customer? Spouse? Child? Sibling? Neighbor? Friend? Who is the person that’s causing you to look forward to the advice below?


A number of years ago I co-authored What to Say to Get What You Want: Strong words for 44 challenging bosses, employees, coworkers, and customers. Some of the troubling people identified there complain vociferously, others disappoint regularly, some attack viciously, and the line up continues. They give us fits. They frustrate the heck out of us and, worse than that, they make it hard for us to achieve our goals.


If you’re searching for insights that will help you manage these challenges, and you don’t want to comb through a 316 page book to find them, this ASK is for you. But please understand something before you read any further. Any triumphs in handling difficult people will result less from changing what they do and more from fixing what you do.



Five-Minute Answer:  If I knew what role in your life the difficult person plays that you have identified, and if I knew the nature of that person’s behavior, I could advise you to focus on a certain subset of the counsel below. In the absence of such knowledge, I’m relying on you to choose a handful of the best recommendations.


                      Do!   è   è   è   è   è   Don’t!

Gain perspective:  Problematic behavior stems from one of four sources in the other person: (1) emotional disturbance or mental illness, (2) dysfunctional influencers during upbringing, (3) pain, or (4) fear.

Lose it:  It’s never about you; always about the difficult person. Does knowing this supply you with the emotional buffer that enables you to calmly but insistently call for improved behavior?

Engage:  If things are bad enough to energize you, whatever you do is not likely to make things worse. You’ll almost certainly progress the situation toward a resolution—even if not the one you hope for—and thereby shorten the pain period for all involved.

Avoid:  There’s a saying that in many families and organizations problems don’t get solved they just get old. The more they age the more they harden and develop immunity to a solution. And while they harden, the havoc they inflict continues in the lives of people.

Expect the best:  In the movie My Fair Lady Henry Higgins, against all odds, managed to turn Eliza Doolittle into a lady. His secret? He treated her like a lady and she responded. Treat troublemakers as the kind of people you want them to become, not who they are.

Feel entitled to the best:  Certain beliefs make it hard to be a problem-solver: “I deserve to be treated well.” “I have every right to expect ____.” and “No one should ever ____ me.” Positions like these lead you to dare others not to meet your expectations.

Strengthen the good:  Even the most menacing people have a good side somewhere as well as strengths lurking under the more obvious weaknesses. Sometimes, by further developing those strong points, negative qualities can be substantially moderated and even overwhelmed.

Assume you need to eliminate the bad:  No matter how constructively you deliver criticism, the recipient will feel some amount of sting. The resulting defensiveness could be a roadblock. And even when you succeed in cleaning up a bad act, some of the good in the person can be lost in the bath water.

Surprise them:  Break your typical patterns of response. Don’t use time worn language. Befriend them, which will get their attention, soften them, and is the right thing to do.

Be predictable:  Are you consistently a hot head, ostrich, appeaser, or soft touch? If so, difficult people will learn your pattern and master what it takes to push your buttons.

Listen:  You can bet that almost no one has ever given this person a good listening-to. Do it and you’ll diffuse anger, learn how the person feels, say you care, prevent yourself from attacking, and very likely win the person over.

Set the person straight:  Whenever your goal is, “He needs to hear how much he’s upsetting people!” you’re just adding kerosene to the blaze. How many others have already tried this with that person without success?

Acknowledge your role in the problem:  Have you possibly set a wrong example? Are you guilty of empty threats? Have you enabled the very behavior you hate by making excuses for the person, setting low standards, or not holding the person accountable?

Believe you’re above reproach:  So long as you see the other person mostly or completely at fault, YOU are a significant part of the problem. Admit to yourself your role. If nothing else, you’ve been guilty of letting it get this far without addressing it decisively.

Get to the point:  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7-8) Otherwise, the person may not even know what you need.

Beat around the bush:  Stop hinting, denying what you really want, waiting for others to come to their senses, or saying “He knows what he’s doing wrong.” And don’t gossip behind the person’s back.

Target behavior for change:  What exactly is the new performance you seek? State it unequivocally: “I need to have you at your desk each morning at 9AM.”

Target attitudes for change:  The other person’s attitudes are not your concern; behavior is. Never say, “You need to change your attitude about getting to work on time.”

Applaud every improvement:  When your challenger begins making an effort to improve, praise the effort. Show your appreciation for every bit of progress. Celebrate major gains.

Feel entitled to improvement:  Avoid, “It’s about time!” “I’ll wait to see if it sticks.” “There’s more to do.” “I’m supposed to praise someone for not doing the wrong thing?”


Enough Said:  “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”  ~Abraham Lincoln


Next Time: When companies struggle to conquer economic challenges, teamwork often suffers. How can we counter the forces that threaten unity on our work teams? Check back for some answers as early as 5AM on Wednesday.

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