How to deal with difficult people

We have all encountered the frustration, anxiety and exhaustion of dealing with a difficult person.

In my last post, Dealing with difficult people, I shared my perspective on why some people are difficult by taking a systems perspective.

So here are some useful tips for dealing with difficult people:

1. The only person you can change is you.

We can often get caught up in thinking of ways to change a difficult person or get stuck in a negative cycle of blame; “if difficult person A wasn’t at the meeting I would have presented much better”. The first step in dealing with a difficult person is accepting and embracing the idea that you have little control over other people. What you do have, is 100% control over your attitude, actions and behaviour – so lets start there.

2. Be aware of your reactions

All too often I see clients who, at the mere mention of the difficult person’s name, get riled up. I see very overt signs, such as a tense body posture, rolling eyes, defensive crossed arms, pursed lips. Pressing further about their current experience, clients explain feeling anxious, tense, nervous, frustrated, annoyed or angry. All this after only a reference to a name!

One of the best ways I know to deal with a difficult person is to be aware of our own reactions. What thoughts and sensations I am thinking/feeling? How is this person affecting me and my performance? What deeper concerns and issues is this interaction bringing up in me?

When we are not mindful of what is going on internally or how we are reacting in a given situation we can get into a “me versus you” perspective. More importantly, we can often regret having charged into battle with our immediate reaction – ruminating on the negative interaction for days or weeks after (sounds familiar?). By understanding our own impulses and reactions, in the moment, we are better able to choose a more appropriate and intelligent response.

3. Don’t take it personal

This may seem simple, but in reality, not taking it personally can be very difficult to do. The reality is however, that difficult people rarely have the intention of being difficult. Instead, the characteristics that we view as difficult tend to be a manifestation of behaviours aimed at self-preservation. It is their issues and their way of coping – not you. Quite simply, taking it personally just makes it harder for you.

4. Be prepared

Whilst we may feel like avoiding the difficult person, it really just isn’t an option – especially when the person is a team member or manager. The best thing we can do is plan our approach. This means clearly communicating your view and also actively listening to the other person. Plan out exactly what you want to get across in the meeting and be upfront with the aim of the meeting.

Planning your approach also means taking some time to anticipate the difficult person’s point of view. Ask yourself, what motivates this person (succeeding, money, relationships, being recognised, meeting time frames etc). Once you understand their basic drivers you can tailor your message.