How to Deal with Difficult People

Dealing with Difficult People

Hello Outperformers,

I’ve spoken for leadership and management teams all over the country and, without a doubt, I’ll typically hear about – sometimes secretively – a person in the group that is “difficult.” We’ve all seen this and it is tough, right? It can disrupt the culture of an entire team or organization.

So, what MAKES someone be difficult and what are some things that you can do to be able to handle these situations better? Let’s dig in.

1. Listen and Stay Calm!

I know, I know, it sounds simple but I also ask the question for many groups with which I speak, “How many of you think you are great listeners?” Without a doubt, almost all of the hands go up. We all THINK we’re great listeners, and whether we are or aren’t, the key if you’re dealing with a difficult person is that you’re listening without the intent of formulating a response.

Sometimes people are difficult because they just want to be heard and acknowledged. Nothing more.

When you’re listening, you’re not thinking about what you’re going to say next. You’re not wondering how you’ll respond. The worst thing that you can do, especially if you are in an emotionally-charged situation, is to fight fire with fire, and be combative with a difficult person. This will only cause more problems than it’s worth. Stay calm. Take long, slow, deep breaths, and listen and focus on what the person is saying.

2. Understand the Hidden Need

I don’t believe that anybody was born out of the womb to be a difficult person. They have somehow been MADE that way. There is an underlying need that’s not being met. You must seek to understand this hidden need and what someone wants out of a situation.

This is one of the seven principles of Highly Effective People, seeking to understand and then to be understood. Now, NORMALLY I would encourage using the language,

“Yes, I understand where you’re coming from and what you’re going through”

when dealing with a difficult person, but in this case, that’s often the LAST thing they want to hear. They’ll respond with “You don’t understand what I’m going through! You don’t understand me!”

Instead, say,

“Please tell me more. I want to understand this better.”

Then, let them vent and as they’re doing this, seek to understand what is this person reallylooking for and the underlying hidden need. What do they truly WANT out of a situation?

These are the first two things and they are slightly more passive. The last part is active…

3. Set Limits and Boundaries

I would wager that if you think of a difficult person with whom you interact, they probably don’t even realize it.

Often, difficult people don’t even KNOW they’re being difficult.

It’s a blind spot. It must be brought to their attention, that it’s not okay the way they’re handling a situation, whether it’s their communication, body language or overall attitude.

A lot of times difficult people don’t have this necessary self-awareness. BUT, you cannot try to set limits and boundaries before listening to them, staying calm and seeking to understand the hidden need. If you do, it’ll probably be combative and confrontational, and only add to the problem.

If you follow these three basic things:

  1. Listen and Stay Calm
  2. Understand the Hidden Need
  3. Set Limits and Boundaries

It still might not be roses and rainbows, but your interactions and dealings with difficult people will get BETTER, with the end goal being that the person feels safe, listened to, understood and is aware of what’s acceptable and unacceptable (and, hence, ceases to be as “difficult”).

Keep Outperforming,

Scott