Dealing with difficult people

Difficult people are, lets face it, difficult to deal with! We have all experienced them at work, or in our personal lives.

They are the people who stifle our creativity, stonewall our ideas and ooze negativity. They are the aggressive ones, the defensive ones and the ones who avoid us.

More importantly, they are the people who cause us to act in a defensive and reactive manner – a manner we often regret.

In my coaching business, discussions around dealing with difficult people are one of the most common concerns I encounter.

So this got me thinking, why are difficult people difficult?

Why are difficult people difficult?

Lets take a moment to consider Marcus, an executive at a leading financial services firm. Marcus is known for his overt displays of, as he calls it, ‘passion’ and ‘drive’ for his role. He is your typical fist thumping, finger pointing, high volume character. The people who work for him are intimidated and those more senior have learnt to leave him alone.

It is easy to view Marcus as a difficult person as his impact is very real, with high staff turnover, whispers of bullying, and low levels of team engagement.

But if we were to look at Marcus from a different perspective and with a different lens we may start to notice that the displays of bravado and aggression are only the tip of the iceberg. Deeper, under the surface, may be many plausible reasons for the overt aggressive behaviour, such as insecurity, stress, family issues, financial concerns, depression, anxiety or a lack of competence in the role.

In other words, the behaviour we see is the complex result of many interrelated, unpredictable and constantly changing conditions.

Taking a systems perspective

Taking a systems perspective involves thinking in a holistic manner by observing the entire system, as opposed to seeing snapshots or discrete events with no interrelationship.

Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organisation describes how our “mental models,” or personal paradigms, are often developed from our tendency to break down large problems into smaller manageable parts. In doing this, we end up mentally isolating events and actions, mostly because their causes and effects are often widely separated in time and space.

Getting back to our aggressive executive Marcus, we can see that a few interactions where the aggressive behaviour is observed can lead us to assume that Marcus is a difficult person.

Overall, it is very easy to tag someone as a difficult person, particularly when their view or way of doing things is very different to ours. However, from a systems perspective we can start to understand and uncover the complexity behind behaviour. Perhaps Marcus has some serious personal issues, maybe he is struggling at work, or he has simply learnt that way of reacting and responding works. 

Does this mean we need to put up with those we find difficult to deal with? Absolutely not! It does, however, provide some mental space for dealing with different people and some perspective into why difficult behaviours are occurring.

Read more about this in the article Tips for dealing with difficult people.