Dealing with Difficult People

Nine Strategies for Dealing With Difficult People


Some days it feels like life would be whole lot easier if everyone was just like me. I think I’m pretty smart, and would be surrounded by a whole bunch of folks who thought like I did which would minimize roadblocks, make achieving consensus a more streamlined process and undoubtedly result in many more afternoons on the golf course.

Unfortunately, a lack of diverse people and thinking in my life would not only be pretty boring (not because I’m boring – it’s all those other people), but would close off access to different ways of viewing issues, identifying challenges and solving problems.  I would also, undoubtedly, be out of business in about a week-and-a-half.

Diversity in people and thinking is essential for vibrant, successful organizations. Our differences are a good thing when everyone is aligned and committed to the vision of the organization. However, the different lens through which we all view the world often times leads to conflicts that can make our lives miserable and threaten the welfare of the organization.

There is no “one-size fits all” approach when dealing with difficult people.  However, if you approach the challenge with the notion that you want to improve the relationship for the benefit of both parties and the good of the organization, you can, in most cases at least improve the situation.  Here are nine potential strategies for dealing with difficult people:

Stay calm.  Losing your cool costs you credibility and will be a setback in efforts to resolve the conflict.  If you are really mad, wait until you have settled down before approaching the difficult colleague.

Empathy.  Make an honest effort to understand where the other person is coming from.  If your company administers behavioral assessments, such as a DiSC or Myers-Briggs, evaluate your own personal communication style and that of your colleague.  Understanding differences in how people prefer to be communicated with and adjusting your style to fit their preference can make a major difference.

One-on-one conversation.  Have an honest conversation with the other party. Approach the conversation with an open attitude and a willingness to listen. Seek to end the meeting with an agreement to work together on something specific to improve the relationship. Conflict is always best when handled privately between two people.

Focus on the common ground.  It’s not always possible to totally turn a relationship around, but often times there are some areas of common interest or agreement on which you can focus. Working on those areas first will often lead to a greater willingness down the road to work on other aspects of the relationship.

Help them understand you.   Often times, conflict occurs because people don’t understand where you are coming from or what the reasoning was behind a certain decision or action.

Nix the negativity.  Don’t fuel the fire by engaging in negative talk about the other person. If you’re finding a constant stream of negative thoughts about the other person, it is probably time for you to have a sit-down with them and/or seek perspective from other trusted colleagues.

Pour honey on them.  You might try this with one of those naysayers who just seems to want to promote conflict, and who really gets under your skin.  Give them regular compliments and praise.  Keep it genuine.

Ignore them.  Let it go.  Sometimes you’re just not going to make any inroads.  If you’ve tried several strategies and see no hope of improvement, it might be best to restrict your contact with this person, if possible, to those times when it is absolutely essential.

Appeal to a higher authority.  This is a last resort, but one that sometimes is necessary.  This is not one you want to use often, and you should definitely make sure you have exhausted all other options first.

What do you do when the difficult person you’re dealing with is your boss? That’s the subject of my next post.