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Tips for Dealing with Difficult People

You know the type:

He leans on your desk, glares, and says loudly, "just how long is it going to take me to get some help around here?"

She comes over from next door whining: "Are you folks ever going to clean up your yard? You know, your place is the only one on the block that..."
He calls your business and demands immediate service, an extra discount, and extended terms. "...And if you can't help me, I want to speak to the owner."

She can't wait to corner you at the open house: "Did you hear about Fred and Betty?" she hisses. "Wilma told me that they..."

What is a "difficult person?" Anyone who doesn't behave as expected. We do, after all have some unwritten "rules" about appropriate behavior in our society. Be fair; wait your turn; say "please" and "thank you"; talk in conversational tones and volume... Difficult people ignore those mores, or act as if they are exempt - often while they expect you to live by the standards they're flaunting. They're usually loud, intrusive, impolite, thoughtless, selfish, and, well, difficult!

Here is a summary of guidelines and procedures which can help when you're confronted with a particularly difficult person or situation:

  • Your efforts ought to be directed at solving a substantive problem, not "taking care of" a difficult person. If you insist on one "winner," there probably won't be one. (And if there is, it may not be you!)
  • De-escalation of loud voice and angry gestures is usually best accomplished by modeling: lower your own level of emotional behavior and you'll probably affect the other person's actions.
  • Your approach to these situations should be your own as much as possible - a good fit with your natural style. All the ideas here are legitimate - but only some will work for you.
  • Preparation in advance is a big help. Learn deep breathing and relaxation techniques, cognitive restructuring, assertive skills. A confrontation is not the time to start practicing!
  • If you're going into a situation where it's likely you'll confront a difficult person, set up some ground rules in advance to cover typical problems (e.g. time limits for talkers in a group meeting).
  • If there are particular individuals in your life who are predictable problems, you can practice methods which are custom designed for responding to them.
  • Get to know yourself and your own triggers for emotional response. As someone said, "Get to know your own buttons, so you'll know when they're pushed!"
  • So-called "I-messages" really can help - take responsibility for your own feelings without blaming the other person.
  • Acknowledging the other person's feelings while seeking a resolution is usually helpful. ("I can see you're really upset about this.") But be especially careful not to patronize or come off sounding like a too-empathetic Rogerian counselor.
  • It's not often possible to solve a situation on the spot. Look for a temporary way out so you can seek a solution in a calmer moment.
  • Remember, you do have some options for action. Any of them can cause you more trouble with a difficult person if you become a manipulator, so apply them sensitively - but firmly - and with the main goal of getting on with your life.

Adapted from Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships (Eighth Edition),
Robert E. Alberti, Ph.D. and Michael L. Emmons, Ph.D.
Available at online and local bookstores or directly from Impact Publishers
PO Box 6016, Atascadero, CA 93423-6016
Phone 1-800-246-7228.

Reviewed by athealth on February 8, 2014.