Let's face it. For a minute or two every little while, every one of us is someone else's idea of a 'difficult person'. OK, that's a given. There are, however, folks who make a lifestyle of being difficult. At least, that's the way it seems to us...and maybe to a few other people in our offices.

A difficult person is a person whose behavior causes you a problem. It could be a boss, a co-worker, a client or customer. It is unlikely that you will be able to change that person's behavior, however, you are entirely able to wisely manage your part of your interactions with him or her. That is your most effective strategy in dealing with difficult people. That is where you will find your power in those situations.

Now, before you can tackle these difficult people, it is essential to have your own act together. Is there any tiny chance that your actions, words or behaviors actually contribute to the other person's ‘difficult’ behavior?

Ever had a morning like this? You're short on sleep. You're running a little late. You ran out of coffee. You almost missed your bus. You forgot your briefcase and your lunch. You get to work just in time to make it to a very important meeting. The only available chair is next to the person you like least and, as you slip into it as unobtrusively as possible, he leans over and says sarcastically and none too quietly, "Nice you could make

Is he being a difficult person? Perhaps. Especially if you could have predicted his remark. The challenge comes when you draw your next breath. What do you say?

If you have the presence of mind to ignore the sarcasm and respond with a genuine "Thank you", you're not going to have much trouble with anyone. If, however, your blood pressure soars, your hands grow clammy and you begin to sputter, he's got you. If "Jerk" is the only thing you can mutter, he was looking for an effect and he got one.

First, when you think you're dealing with a difficult person, look in the mirror. How are you behaving in the situation? Collect yourself. Decide on your behavior strategy. Stay in control of yourself and you're likely to stay in control of the situation.


Some folks are bullies. They bombard you with their aggression, make cutting remarks and get angry when things are not to their liking.

Some folks are whiners and complainers. They seldom take action to change things because they prefer to find fault.

Some stay silent or uncommunicative. Often they seem to have vocabularies of one-syllable responses--"Yep.", "No." or a grunt.

Some agree with everything you say and express their willingness to be supportive, however, they seldom follow through. Often they are labeled passive-aggressive, and, they are!

Some are simply the constant wet blankets. Nothing will ever work. Everything is impossible. Expect the worst because it will likely happen. That's their credo.

Some simply know everything...or think they do. They are condescending, imposing, pompous and dismissive. Their mission in life seems to be to make you feel like a fool.

Some cannot make a decision, or, at least, they will not. They wait for decisions to be made for them. Often, these are perfectionists.

These are the categories that Robert Bramson created in his book, Coping with Difficult People. Do they sound familiar? Sure, very few people are constantly difficult--especially if they want something from you--however, there are some basic strategies that will help when you are confronted with difficult behaviors.


A customer is yelling at you about a missing order (report, etc.). Take a breath and say, "I can understand that this has created a difficulty for you and we would very much like to find a way to resolve it for you as quickly as possible." This may be a translation of what you are thinking: "You are being abusive, loud and unreasonable and I want you to go away." No matter. You have spoken about your feelings and acknowledged the customer's, as well. Even if that sentence is a wise translation of "Listen. You have no right to yell at me. No one pays me enough to be yelled at.", you will have shown both your maturity and your willingness to provide customer service.

It is not the conversation in your head that you are concerned with when you deal with difficult people. It is the actual words that come out of your mouth. Even in your relationships at home, you are well aware of what pushes peoples' buttons and what appeases them.

RULE: Before doing or saying anything to anyone, imagine the result you want from the conversation and say only things that take you in that direction.


Another phrase that allows you to glide out of situations that could escalate is "You could be right." Why waste energy arguing with someone who 'knows it all"? They are looking for confirmation of their brilliance, their perfect world view and their authority. Unless it is a matter of life and breath for your job, consider genuinely saying, "You could be right." It costs you nothing, appeases the other, and your blood pressure
remains low.

If you happen to be thinking that this is less than honest, it isn't. The possibility does exist that the other person is correct. It may be remote, but it does exist.

RULE: Maintain your sense of self and center by acknowledging others and avoiding energy drains.


Everyone does not think as you do. That's no surprise. Take the time to ask good questions and listen to others without judgment. Most folks have compelling reasons for their beliefs and behaviors. They are entitled to them as well. Be sure that you have not become inflexible and intolerant. Tension does that to people.

In the name of efficiency, folks forget they are talking to other folks who also have lives and feelings. Be sure that you put people first.

Give pressure a name. Preface your remarks with "I know that I am feeling pressured and you are likely feeling that way, too." Ask how you can best manage situations together....and listen. As Zig Ziglar's reminds us: When we are more concerned with helping people get what they want, our wants will likely be met.

Take a deep breath and exhale slowly before answering anyone when you feel tense. That will keep you from being the 'difficult person'! Imagine the result you want from the interaction five minutes from now. What might feel good at the moment may cause you untold weeks of rebuilding five minutes from now. Choose your
words and actions wisely.


When difficult people cannot be side-stepped, practice communicating your boundaries clearly. If you are feeling your pulse quickening, make an "I" statement quickly. With an little expert turn, you can acknowledge the other and set your boundary simultaneously: "I think that I can help you get what you want. Will you help me do that by (reviewing the facts, stepping back and allowing me some space, speaking quietly so that I can
assimilate your needs, etc.)?

There are some folks with whom you work who will persistently push your buttons. They may be unaware of their poor social skills. They may be miserable by nature. They may only have a sense of power in their lives when they are pushing people around. Who knows? The reason they are doing what they are doing is less
important than how you manage their effect on you.

This is where boundary setting becomes imperative. Ask the person to coffee. Gulp! Yes, actually plan to spend a little time with them. Then, using only "I" statements....that means not using "You" as the subject of ANY sentence that you speak...explain what is bothering you and what you would like to have changed. Then, ask for their cooperation. Yes, that's the difficult part. It's like asking for the sale. Most folks balk right there. You have to take this to its logical conclusion. Ask them if they are willing to honor and respect your boundary,
your needs. If they are not, then be prepared to tell them what your next step will be. Go upline if necessary, however, explain to him or her that you would prefer to handle it between yourselves.

If the problem is your boss or supervisor, things change slightly. Before requesting your little 'heart-to-heart', do your homework. Be prepared with specific examples of interactions that upset you and use them as examples of times when you were unable to do your work efficiently and productively. Demonstrate the benefits to them of their changing their behavior around you.

Does this sound like something you could do? I hope so. What are the benefits to you or the company of living with frustration, fear and tension on a daily basis? If you're a news reporter, it may come with the territory, however, in that case, you chose it. Otherwise, take action on your own behalf.

RULE: Ask for what you need and want clearly. Be willing to hear "Yes" or "No" and make a plan based on each contingency.


Everything in life has a cost. Know your own bottom line.Think of your life as one whole piece. If you find practical ways of managing relationships with difficult folks, you will not be irritable and short with the people you love at home. If you do not, or cannot, what is the price?

Knowing when to hold and when to fold is wise. Sometimes you simply have to communicate your bottom line and be willing to pay the price it demands. "If this cannot be changed, I will find other employment" may have to come from your mouth. "If we cannot find a way to talk about things equitably, I will have to take the issue to the manager" may be necessary. "If the sniping, gossip, stealing, lying, slurring, trashing, yelling continues, you will be fired" may be the next step. Know your own bottom line and stay in the black!

You have choice when confronted with difficult behavior. Remember, there is a person under that behavior who is wanting to be understood. That person is usually fearful and lacking in self-esteem. If you can overlook the overt behavior and dig a little, you'll likely find someone who simply needs much reassurance that they are OK. Sometimes, you do not have the time, energy or willingness to do this. Only you can decide.

You are not powerless in the face of difficult behavior. Choose to take action. You'll feel better and things will change more quickly. That's the result you want, isn't it?

© Rhoberta Shaler, San Diego, CA.. All rights reserved.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Rhoberta Shaler is the author of Wrestling Rhinos: Conquering Conflict in the Wilds of Work and founder of the Optimize Institute, WorkplacePeopleSkills.com and TamingTenseTeams.com . A well-respected psychologist, speaker, consultant and coach, she works with organizations that know their people are their top resource, and with enlightened leaders who know that building relationships must be a top priority. They know that working with Dr. Shaler creates right-sized, high-performance teams that are consistently effective and profitable--especially in a troubled economy.

Author of more than two dozen books and audio programs, Dr. Shaler offers cost-saving professional development through training delivered both in person and on the telephone. Call Dr. Shaler now and optimize your success. Visit www.OptimizeInstitute.com & subscribe to her ezine, The Rhino Wrestler