Four Steps to Dealing with Difficult People

by Feb 3, 2020

Difficult people are everywhere. It’s likely you have encountered someone at work who struggles to connect with others in a positive way, whether because they are a downer, a one-upper, a gossip, or other reason. While difficult people come in many forms, they all have the power to completely suck the life out of you and your team.

I was recently up at LifeSpeak filming courses on this very topic (don’t worry, I’ll let you know when it’s available), and since we’ve all dealt with difficult people I thought I’d offer up some of my tips.

First, make a choice about your attitude. The fact is that while it is easy to point fingers at someone, you cannot change them and can only change yourself. By taking responsibility for your own role in the situation, you can become a better leader by becoming a better relationship builder.

Second, don’t take it personally. Everyone has needs, and this difficult person’s needs have nothing to do with you. So take the time to understand someone better by asking open-ended questions such as, “Tell me what is going on so I can understand where you are coming from,” it will help you understand what drives this person, and then you can maneuver your interactions with them accordingly.

Third, maintain self-control. Be aware of your instincts and feelings, recognize the situation, apply consciousness, and choose your actions wisely. Be present and aware of how you feel, so that you can avoid reacting to your negative feelings towards the difficult person. Using coping mechanisms such as deep breaths, meditating, walking, or politely exiting a situation can also help you take the proper action instead of reacting instinctually. In the end, you are the one with the power to change your own attitude.

Fourth, set boundaries and respect other people’s boundaries. One way to do that is to try something like, “I understand that you are frustrated, but when you criticize my work in that tone of voice it feels like you don’t value me. In the future, I’d like to try asking you to explain things to me so I can learn.” Notice that I first empathized, and then provided insight as to how I feel and what I need instead.

Fifth, ask a lot of questions. We don’t like difficult people because their behavior takes our power and we don’t have control in our interactions with them. Take back your power, and put the bad behavior on hold, by disrupting it with questions. If someone is gossiping, for example, try, “What is your intention in telling me this story about Sharon?” If someone is taking up your time blabbing on about their weekend, try, “Do you mind if I finish what I’m working on, and then if I have time later today I’ll stop in and you can finish your story?”

Finally, if you need to, try talking to the other person about their behavior in private. Make sure you do so in a neutral place and focus on the behavior they have been exhibiting rather than the person themselves. Provide specific examples, and be open to the other person’s feedback. This conversation should be a collaborative one focused on building your work relationship. Focus on “fixing” the difficult personality problems, and it won’t work.

Try these steps, and become a better relationship builder.


Do you know how much money chronically bad behavior costs your company? Spoiler alert – it’s a LOT higher than you want it to be. Download our data and worksheet to see how it’s costing your organization and what you can do to fix it.

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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