Dealing With Difficult People

March 1, 2012 by Shweta Handa-Gupta

“In the school of life, difficult people are the faculty. They teach us our most important lessons, the lessons that we would be most unlikely to learn on our own.”

~Mark I. Rosen

Dealing with difficult people is, perhaps, one of the biggest challenges of our lives – be it when establishing yourself at a new job, leading a team, managing a business or in our personal life.  Almost always a time consuming or emotionally draining prospect, it’s a common practice for us to avoid it till it becomes inevitable.

But when you are able to manage these situations, or more appropriately manage yourself and your responses in these situations, you can make life less stressful and also begin to build new possibilities.

The art of handling difficult people can be mastered by focussing on three aspects – the other person, the self and the response.


  1. Seek to Understand – Every person has their own point of view and their own baggage. Remember that their issues are real to them, honour that and try to understand them. A useful tool is pay attention to their language. Their choice of words or some particular words they use more often will give you a hint about where they are coming from or what bothers them. Especially if you are their manager and their behaviour is impacting their own or the team’s performance, it is important for you to get to the root of what is causing them to behave this way. Eg. If the person often says “up against a wall”, you may want to ask what they think is the reason for this wall, where this wall starts in their mind and how they can be helped to overcome this wall.
  2. Don’t Try to Change Them – Accept the reality of who they are and focus more on your own response to them.  Enforcing change, in all likelihood, may invite another power struggle.
  3. Avoid the Horns Effect – The horns effect is a common cognitive bias where we judge someone poorly, based on one undesirable trait or an unfavourable initial impression. It is important to protect against stereotyping and look at people as complete human beings with positive as well as negative traits. Remember, colleagues whose agendas seem to oppose our own are not necessarily enemies. Try to identify the positives and see how to get the best out of them.


Most relationship difficulties are due to the dynamics between two people rather than the negativity of one person.  Yes there are people in our life who seem very negative, who get on our nerves or simply do not like us. And there are those who attempt to intimidate or manipulate by being unpredictable and difficult. But remember, an emotional reaction sidesteps rational analysis. Self-protection and defensiveness is always the immediate response of our pre-conscious brain but we need to check our built-in fight, flight and freeze reactions as these responses may not serve our long term goals.

Awareness of our own impulses and reactions will allow us to pause, deliberate and rationally choose the most effective course of action. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Am I taking personally something that is not specifically directed at me?
  2. Am I just trying to win the argument/prove myself right? What do I gain out of winning this argument?
  3. Is it my rational brain or my ego that is driving me to this response? Will I actually feel satisfied if I win this fight?
  4. Will I be happy with my behaviour at the end of this? Is this bringing out the worst in me and making me difficult to deal with too?
  5. Is this person always as negative as I believe him/her to be? Can I think of some examples when this person has behaved differently from my negative perception?
  6. What do I feel when I think about this person? How do I behave when I am feeling this way? If I could let go of my negative emotions towards this person how would I feel and behave?

We need to learn to control our automatic defensive responses such as “I can’t let him get away with this!!” “How can someone criticise me!!” etc. While this does not mean we become doormats, it does mean that we stand up to ourselves getting pulled into unnecessary duels.

Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity – “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So if we want different outcomes to our interactions with difficult people we have to focus on changing our responses and try to establish healthier patterns.


We’ve spoken about understanding the other person as well as identifying the drivers of our reactions and responses. We know the importance of noticing the triggers in our mind, understanding the motivators of our responses and also assessing whether these responses would result in desirable outcomes.  Armed with this knowledge, we can effectively manage our behaviour and reactions when dealing with difficult people to create healthier interactions and achieve desired conclusions. So, here are some tips to manage your responses:

  • Act normally – If you go into an interaction with a pre-conceived mind-set, your body language will give away signals and this may actually invite difficult behaviour from people when they feel you are coming with a negative expectation. Remember, people will mostly live up to your expectations so it’s better to go into each interaction with an open mind and give the person a chance to behave differently.
  • Manage your expectations – You know the person you are dealing with and you know about their past behaviour patterns. Set your expectations accordingly and target at best a civil and to the point interaction. Does it make any sense to tell your secrets to a known gossip or rely on someone who is extremely careless? Accept the reality of what people are and set your expectations accordingly.
  • Be Specific and Objective – Focus on providing real examples and don’t use generalizations. Eg. Instead of saying “why are you always so aggressive?” you could try “Your stand on X in yesterday’s meeting along with the louder pitch of your voice came across as a little overbearing. Could we … <action plan>…”
  • Focus on the outcomes – Try to maintain focus on the outcomes and goal for which the interaction is taking place. Be precise in explaining what you want from them with specific examples of the quality of output that you expect from them. Avoid getting into tangential arguments/blame games.
  • Try to notice and compliment the positives – Everyone has some qualities that can be appreciated. Difficult people may have task or efficiency related talents even if their interpersonal interactions leave a lot to be desired. Remember to find time to appreciate what is going well and not only to point out what is going wrong.
  • Document – The spoken word is rarely remembered verbatim and is often coloured by the understanding and perception of the listener. If there is something you may want to refer back to, document. That can go a long way in pre-empting potential arguments.
  • Build Trust – Difficult people often have deep seated mistrust caused by negative behaviour of those around them which, in turn, they may have invited by being so difficult!! Try to break this vicious cycle by behaving positively and consistently around them and building a trust relationship. This can go a long way in changing their behaviour towards you.
  • Be neutral – Try to stay away from sensitive or divisive topics such as religion, politics, office cribbing etc. If the difficult person tries to engage you in a discussion that you know will lead to conflict, change the topic or terminate the discussion politely.
  • Don’t take it personally – Be polite – When we feel challenged or threatened, it is common for our inbuilt defence reactions to come to the fore. These instinctive reactions were essential for our ancestors during the tough phases of the human evolutionary cycle but now need moderation according to the environment. Try not to blame yourself or the other person for the negative behaviour, it may not be      directed at you alone. Don’t rise to the bait and try to be firm without being rude or offensive.
  • Give Yourself Space – We are but human and there will be moments when you feel you cannot fully control your reactions. If you feel you are losing it, it’s better to walk away.  Giving yourself time and space will ensure you give an evaluated, effective and definitely more intelligent response or reaction.
  • Resist the urge to win the argument – Don’t get overcome by a need to win the argument and prove the other person wrong. While it is wise to firmly state your opinion, also remember that everybody is entitled to their opinions and you are not entering into a higher battle of right and wrong. A you-put-me-down and I-will-put-you-down kind of war is likely to just worsen their future behaviour and will not get you any closer to the desired outcome.

Interacting with difficult people is not something you can avoid so stop procrastinating and start those steps towards creating fruitful interactions. 70% of the people I spoke to knew how to handle difficult people and scenarios but when faced with the actual situation, they threw their good judgement out of the window and ended up reacting impulsively and defensively. I hope this article will make you stop and think twice before you do that.

“To conquer oneself is a greater victory than to conquer thousands in a battle.” ~Gautam Buddha

An adaptation of this post has been published in The Financial Express as part of Shweta Handa-Gupta’s guest column

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