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Strategies for Working With Difficult People

Posted on February 7, 2022
Image of silhouetted man and woman in front of a maze having an argument

We’ve all experienced difficult people in our lives at one point or another – the feelings and emotions they can evoke with their condescension, aggression, or disrespect can feel overwhelming. But let’s face it, as much as we may want to, we can’t control their behavior, but we can control our reaction and the direction we take to resolve it.

There are a couple things to consider as you way your options:

  • What is the nature of the relationship?
  • Who has the power in the relationship?

Your answers to these questions will help guide you in your response.

What is the nature of the relationship?

Is this a personal and familial relationship – in that case the stakes are high to resolve the issue because that person has been part of your life and presumably you want them to remain in your life. A good heart-to-heart sit down might be needed. But if this is a work relationship, then there are other questions that need answering before you determine any potential pathways toward a solution.

Who has the power in the relationship?

Before you determine your path forward, you need to understand the power dynamics at play.

If you are the person in power

Start by scheduling a time, maybe go get a cup of coffee together. Be honest, without sounding accusatory. Try to avoid “You” statements, instead use “I’ve recently felt something is off I and I wanted to see if everything is okay.” Taking this approach provides space for the individual to be open without feeling as if you are pointing the finger at them. Of course, they can say, “No, everything is fine.” In that case, then provide an example – again, without accusing. Using phrases like “I felt…” or “I see…” are less threatening than “You are…” If the person continues to deny or claims there is nothing, but the behavior continues, you may need to take a stronger approach and be very specific about the incidences.

If the other person holds the power

This can be challenging because those who hold power over you also have the ability to penalize you. I am not suggesting that you sit back and let a difficult person demean you, disrespect you, withhold promotions, etc., but you need to be more strategic in your approach. Similar to the above example, set up a meeting, keep it more casual, less formal. Getting a cup of coffee together provides a more neutral environment. Begin with the same kind of non-accusatory statements as noted above. You can add a statement such as, “I feel like we are not communicating well, have I done something to offend you?” You do want to be careful to watch their body language and listen to what they are saying. Be open to the possibility you have done something to cause the shift and then ask for clarity. On the other hand, you should also be willing to speak up if you have not done anything. But avoid being defensive and using words such as “but,” “however,” “although,” or “instead.” Focus on moving forward by asking how the two of you can move forward to get back to the place where you were before. Show genuine interest. If that does not work, you may need to suggest bringing in someone to help you repair the relationship. Finally, if you sense any type of retaliation, you should seek out assistance from HR immediately and document all interactions with the individual.

If you are equals

In this case, you have the ability to talk with the “difficult” person as a peer, which is much different than when one or the other of you holds the power. Be open and honest. If the person, doesn’t see it or the behavior continues, then you address them in a professional manner. Begin by doing so privately. If the behavior seeps into engagement with others, again address it privately. If the behavior continues in meetings or around others, you should not need to sit in a meeting and let someone be disrespectful, just make sure your response is professional and respectful and quick, “Tom, that comment was not necessary, we are all working toward the same goal, let’s focus on that.” Then move on. If it persists, then you may need to seek guidance from your manager.

Disrespect, condescension, and aggression almost always result in conflict. Thankfully, very few people relish conflict. In fact, I would argue that people who create conflict are often struggling themselves. That being said, I can assure you, running from conflict or avoiding it, will not protect you from it. Thus, it is always better to address conflict using some of the suggestions made in this post. The key is to be professional, avoid going down a defensive lane, and be open to listening and hearing what the other person says. Remember, there are generally two sides to each story and more often than not, the reality resides somewhere in the middle. But when it does not, taking a “preachy” approach will in no way reduce the conflict or better the situation.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Dean, Graduate College
Assistant Clinical Professor, Goodwin College
Drexel University
Posted in interpersonal-communications, leadership-management-skills