Dealing with difficult people

What are the characteristics you most relish in friends, family, and colleagues? Do you value empathy, kindness, generosity? How about honesty and integrity? How important is the ability to be supportive? Then there are the skills of being a great listener and communicator. Although we may know many who have some or all of these characteristics and skills, it is often the people with difficult behaviours who stand out in our minds – it can be human nature to dwell on the unpleasant.


A to Z of difficult behaviour

How many difficult people and behaviours can you think of? Here’s a short ‘A to Z’ of behaviours that clients have cited to me as being difficult for them to handle:

  • aggressive
  • bullying
  • controlling
  • dithering
  • egotistical
  • flippant
  • grumpy
  • hurtful
  • indirect
  • judgemental
  • know-it-all
  • loud
  • manipulative
  • nosy
  • obstinate
  • patronising
  • quarrelsome
  • rude
  • selfish
  • two-faced
  • unhelpful
  • volatile
  • woolly
  • xenophobic
  • yes-person
  • zealot

Which of these behaviours do you find difficult to handle?

What other behaviours would you personally like to add to the A to Z?

It’s interesting to note the range of behaviours. It isn’t only aggressive-type behaviours that can challenge, but also indirect people who don’t say what they mean or use grumpy body language in the hope you’ll guess they’re not happy.

Then there are the people-pleasers, who think that saying ‘yes’ will bring about better relationships. The reality is that it’s hard to know what they really think.

Did I do something wrong?

It can be hard to know whether, when and how to challenge a difficult behaviour. A manipulative comment such as “I don’t know why you won’t do it. I’d do it for you”, can cause confusion, guilt, and a sense of being mean if you say ‘no’. A sneer or silent treatment can make you wonder what you did wrong when someone won’t give you the benefit of an explanation. There can also be that worry that challenging someone will make things worse.

10 tips for dealing with difficult people

1. See the behaviour rather than the person as ‘difficult’. You’ll have a much better chance of addressing things if you take on the behaviour rather than challenging the person in their entirety. Saying “you’re so difficult” won’t get you far.

2. Wait until your emotions are under control before raising the matter. If you feel very angry it could inflame the situation or, if upset, you could find yourself unable to stand your ground or get your point across. Only when you’re in control of your emotions will you be able to think clearly about what you want to achieve in speaking to someone, and so find the words to ask them.

3. Avoid blaming language. If you start with ‘you’ and accuse, the other person is likely to jump on the barricades and hurl ‘You’ statements back at you. It’s better to use the assertive “I” and say how you feel affected by their behaviour, as illustrated in the next point.

4. Avoid judgmental words and generalisations. Indeed, all the behaviours in the A to Z above are judgements! “You’re so nosy” may be true in your eyes, but where is the evidence? Best to provide it, also because what is nosy to one person, isn’t to another. A different way is to say: “I’m not comfortable talking about my personal life at work”.

5. Keep sight of the issue. People often attack each other personally in a dispute and lose sight of the issue. In families, sometimes people haven’t spoken to each other for years; they don’t even remember the reason why, they only know that the other person is a “mean, selfish piece of work”. So, avoid name-calling and personal insults, and return to the issue and facts behind the difficult behaviour.

6. Work towards finding common ground. Identify the issues that bind you before trying to resolve the issues that divide you. What concerns and goals do you have in common? Perhaps the other person’s difficult behaviour is triggered by a sense of there being no likely understanding or resolution, or assumptions about you and your view.

7. Show empathy towards another’s difficult feelings – this doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with them but showing you’ve been listening and taken on board their feelings or situation.

This can go a long way towards taking the conversation in a direction where you resolve disagreements and differences. As Indira Gandhi said: “You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.”

8. State the positive consequences of the person changing their behaviour, such as “I’d like you to lower your voice so we can sit down and really listen to each other.”

9. When they do agree to change, don’t forget to say: “Thank you”.

10. Here are two more examples of difficult behaviours and assertive responses:

Indecisive: “I know it’s not easy to decide x or y (empathy). I would like to know tomorrow by 2pm at the latest (request, time frame) so that we can arrange things in time (benefit/positive outcome) if we’re going ahead.”

Know-it-all: “I understand that you have a lot of experience in this area. (acknowledgement) I also have knowledge of x and y and I’d like to contribute to the discussion at this point.” (positive statement of intention)

If you want or must maintain the relationship and resolve awkward feelings between you, it’s best to take an assertive approach to communicating and look to achieve dialogue and win-win solutions.

Affected by difficult people at work or personally?

If you would like to talk about the difficult people in your life and find assertive, rather than aggressive or passive ways of responding, contact me to arrange an appointment.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, NW11
Written by Lucy Seifert, Life Coach London
London, NW11

Our personal challenges can affect us at home, work and in our relationships. My 25 years of coaching and training experience help you build confidence and design strategies to make positive changes. You’ll find that I have a warm coaching style, with integrity and professionalism. Also, I’ve authored five books about coaching and assertiveness.

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