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Dealing with Difficult People

Estimated Lesson Time: 7 minutes

It all starts in preschool. You are minding your own business while building a magnificent castle out of wooden blocks. Just as you are putting the finishing touches on the tallest tower, some kid named Billy Sanderson, wearing a t-shirt that reads “Born To Be Bad,” pretends he’s Godzilla and destroys your creation. He then turns to you, opens his big mouth with his two little pointer fingers, sticks out his tongue, then runs off. After you take a moment to digest the situation, you pick up a wooden block, and like an Australian hunting down a kangaroo with a boomerang, you forcefully whip the block at your fleeing adversary. While he cascades into a pile of tinker toys, a feeling of satisfaction overcomes you knowing that you have just dealt with your first difficult person. Unfortunately, dealing with difficult people becomes more challenging outside of preschool. What we need as adults are techniques and philosophies, not wooden blocks.

A difficult person is not the same as an angry person, although a difficult person can be, and often is, angry. A difficult person is not just one who engages in debate or stands up for what he or she believes. A difficult person is characterized by being unreasonable. To be fair and to avoid casting labels on people, all people can be difficult at times. However, it just takes one instance of unreasonable behavior for someone to earn the label “difficult.”

For some people, being difficult appears to be in their “nature.” Some people actually get joy and satisfaction from arguing, criticizing, condemning and complaining. Some people are conditioned to be that way due to a lifetime of negative experiences; being difficult is their defense. Others just want to be heard; they want a sympathetic ear and someone who will give them the attention they desire. No excuse, however, can justify the unyielding and irrational behavior of a difficult person.

Ideally, avoiding difficult people is better than dealing with them. However, when mere avoidance is not possible or practical, we must deal with difficult people. When you find yourself in a situation confronted by a difficult person, try this three-step process:

  1. Control your emotions. Never allow a difficult person to get you down or angered. Not controlling an emotion such as anger can be seen as a sign of weakness, which can be further exploited. Acting in anger only leads to regret. When you remain calm, there is a good chance that the difficult person will calm down to match your demeanor.
  2. Separate yourself from the situation. A “trick” difficult people use is making you one with the situation. For example, while standing in line to return a defective movie I purchased, I witnessed a customer yelling at the clerk, “How can you sell such junk?!” That fact is, the clerk is not at all responsible for selecting the items that particular superstore carries. Separating yourself from the situation will help you to remain calm and handle the situation more effectively.
  3. Do your best to get the difficult person to think and act rationally. This is best accomplished by getting the other person to calm down. Now as a general rule, it is not a good idea to tell someone in a heightened emotional state to calm down or relax; this would only make the other person more defensive. Instead, use your knowledge of human behavior to help the other person see the situation from your point of view.
  • Identify a common goal. Show the other person that you are on the same side and that you both want a fair resolution to the problem. For example, no matter how unreasonable a person is being, don’t tell that person that they are being unreasonable. Instead, make sure you let him know that it is his request that you feel is unreasonable then offer an alternative solution. “I feel your request is unreasonable, and I am quite sure my boss will as well. But here is what I suggest we do...”
  • Agree on as many points as possible. No matter how unreasonable the ranting of another may be, there are usually one or two points on which you can agree. Listen closely for these points and make it known that you agree with them. This will help you to establish trust.
  • Ask questions. One of the reasons people act unreasonable at times is they fail to ask themselves some obvious questions. This is quite common: when we don’t want to know the answer we don’t ask the question. To illustrate, I often deal with customers who demand refunds on months of web hosting service because they say that they “didn’t use it.” Instead of directing them to our service level agreement where our policy is clearly stated, I say, “Even though you did not use the service, we still provided the service and incurred the associated expenses. Do you think it is fair that you should not pay for the service during this time?” Usually, that gets an “I guess not” response but if it does not I use the somewhat ironic analogy, “What do you think the cable company would say if you demanded six months credit because you told them you had not been watching TV?”
  • Inject humor. Since difficult people generally do not have good senses of humor—at least not while they are being difficult, this one can be a bit risky. However, reasonable people who are just having a bad day or acting out of character will generally respond well to a little humor. By the way, a good counter to the standard “What? You think this is funny?” response to humor is, “No, but I thought my joke was.”

You shouldn't expect to turn every difficult person around; you can only do your best. If at any time you feel the threat of physical harm, let the person know that they are making you feel uncomfortable and if possible call for backup (manager, supervisor, friend). Sometimes a great attitude and exceptional diplomatic skills are not enough to break through a life-long pattern of another’s unreasonable behaviors. However, possessing the ability to deal with difficult people will be of tremendous value to you in many situations, and it is an ability that can help you to get ahead in just about anything you do.


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If you like what you are reading, please consider these options in addition to this free course. They include a hardcopy of the book and an intensive course with action steps, assignments, and personal coaching from Bo.

  • Buy the Book. Year To Success - Available in hardcover, signed by the author. Also available in ebook, paperback, and audio from Amazon.com.
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 Some discussion questions (some may not apply to this lesson):

  • Have you implemented this idea in your life? How has it been working for you?
  • Do you have any interesting stories related to this lesson? Do tell!
  • What do you admire most about this person? (success biography days)
    From the Course:
    Personal Development
    Year To Success
    Bo Bennett, PhD

    (17 ratings)
    Personal Development : Personal Transformation
    Offered by VirversitY
    $19.95 FREE
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