Difficult People

by Suzanne Neville

In a nutshell

1. What makes someone difficult?

Few people get out of bed in the morning with the express intention of being difficult at work. People may, however, behave in a negative, uncooperative or defensive manner for a variety of reasons:

  • They may feel insecure about their ability to do the job
  • They may not have the resources or information they require
  • They may have been asked to take on extra work
  • Their expectations of the job may not have been understood or fulfilled
  • They may have ‘baggage’ relating to past experiences
  • Their behavioural style may be different to yours
  • They may have personal problems.


2. Behavioural styles

Misunderstandings and ill-feelings can arise simply because different people have different styles, but all styles have their uses and their good points.

  • Checkers are slower paced and focus on the task.
  • Commanders are faster paced and focus on task.
  • Collaborators are slower paced and focus on people.
  • Communicators are faster paced and focus on people.


3. Our part in the difficult situation

There are times when our behaviour may have created the difficult behaviour in others. Karpman’s drama triangle is a way of describing how two people might interact, without realising it, in a way that is non-productive and stressful for both. This pattern is often established in childhood.

  • The victim feels powerless, discounts their ability to cope with the challenge and looks for a rescuer.
  • The persecutor is like a critical controlling parent and keeps the victim oppressed.
  • The rescuer takes over from the victim and keeps them dependent.

The answer is to be adult and assertive.


4. Start from a strong place

Your ability to deal with difficult people effectively starts inside you. If you feel confident and willing to try different strategies to handle the difficult behaviour, you are more likely to get a positive result.

  • If you harbour negative beliefs about yourself, you are likely to elicit negative treatment from others.
  • A confident approach is likely to elicit a positive response.
  • Portray confidence through appropriate eye contact, communicating clearly, showing enthusiasm, conveying interest through your facial expression and having an open, relaxed body language.


5. See it from their perspective

When we experience difficulty in working (or personal) relationships with other people, we often feel stuck in a particular pattern of interaction. Being aware of other perspectives and able to tap into the insights they offer can give us extra resources we can use to help us communicate far more effectively.

  • Look at the situation from the other person’s perspective.
  • Stand back from the situation and look at it from an objective viewpoint.
  • Try out new patterns of behaviour.


6. Handling defensive behaviours

When we perceive a threat to our well-being or position, we tend to respond in a defensive manner, but we don’t have to behave like this.

  • In the ‘red zone’ we are stuck – physically, emotionally and intellectually – in an aroused state that is concerned with self-protection and defending.
  • If we can put ourselves in the ‘green zone’, we feel physically relaxed, safe, alive and emotionally significant, competent and likable; we are able to be intellectually open and honest and to consciously operate in a non-defensive, cooperative, problem-solving and accountable state.


7. Emotional hijack

People with high levels of emotional intelligence are able to adapt their emotional expression to the situations in which they find themselves, but when people’s angry emotions take over their logic, it is very difficult to communicate effectively. To avoid the emotional hijack

  • Understand what might cause you to lose emotional control
  • Stay calm by slowing down your breathing, recognising your feelings and stepping into the green zone
  • When other people are hijacked, keep calm, listen to them, acknowledge their feelings and look for a solution.


8. Hints and tips

Ten ideas for defusing difficult situations include

  • Suspend preconceptions
  • Stay calm and listen
  • Suggest a solution, even if it’s only temporary
  • Find something they can agree with
  • Keep your promises
  • Play the role of someone who wants to dismantle obstacles that stand in the way of a solution – you and the angry person are going to solve this problem together.


9. Not difficult – just impossible

Most of the time, if you use the effective strategies discussed within this topic when dealing with difficult people, this will change the situation for the better and the difficulty will be resolved. Sometimes, the situation has gone beyond these solutions.

  • If team morale and customer relations are suffering and nothing changes, though the person has been given feedback and time to improve, disciplinary action should then be taken.
  • Managers should be aware that difficult behaviour may be caused by stress, mental health problems or an addiction.


10. Assert yourself

For best results in handling difficult people (and avoiding being perceived as difficult yourself), you need to understand assertive and non-assertive behaviour and plan how to express your needs in an assertive way.

  • Aggressive people put their needs first and make others feel demeaned, angry, hurt, ignored and resentful.
  • Passive people fail to express their own needs and make others feel irritated, contemptuous and unable to know where the passive person stands.
  • Assertive people are able to stand up for their legitimate rights in ways that do not violate the rights of others.


11. Listening

Effective listening enables the receiver to absorb the precise idea communicated by the sender with the minimum of distortion. Hearing is with the ears, but listening is with the mind. Good listeners

  • Use their observation skills to tune into the other person
  • Reflect data
  • Summarise what has been said to check for mutual understanding
  • Reflect feelings
  • Interpret what the other person has said in a helpful way.


12. Giving and receiving feedback

When we give regular and constructive feedback, we are often able to ‘nip in the bud’ situations that could become difficult if left to fester. When giving feedback

  • Be specific
  • Try to sandwich opportunities for development between positive statements
  • Be positive, not negative
  • Concentrate on behaviours, not on personality
  • Remember the aim is to coach and develop.

When receiving feedback

  • Get clarification and discuss issues
  • Listen, checking for clarification
  • Don’t be defensive
  • Decide on the truth of comments and base your response on this
  • Make choices about what to change in your behaviour.


13. Managing performance

Both parties often anticipate that difficulties will arise during performance review discussions.

  • If someone agrees very quickly with all your comments, it may be because they may feel intimidated or just want to get the meeting over as fast as possible.
  • If someone is very quiet and is not communicating, you can draw them out by careful questioning and, if necessary, arrange a follow-up meeting for a considered response.
  • Find out the cause of any angry or hostile feelings.
  • If someone constantly shifts the blame or strays off the topic, probe for the facts and draw them back to the performance in question.
  • If there is an emotional outburst, reassure the person and give them time to relax.
  • When someone talks constantly and doesn’t come to the point, you need to focus the discussion.


14. Defusing anger

Habitual patterns of acting out anger can sometimes develop, with the anger being directed against others or turned inwards against the self, often leading to unhelpful consequences. We need to understand our own or the other person’s reaction and identify the feelings connected with the anger.

  • Listen to the person and let them have their say.
  • Understand that hurt, sadness, fear or the sense of an unmet need may underlie anger.
  • Use empathy to show understanding of the issue.
  • Remember that you do not have to put up with aggressive or difficult behaviour.


15. Handling emotional outbursts

How do you handle the situation where the individual shuts down, argues every point or starts to cry during a discussion? It’s natural for an employee to feel defensive if you are discussing their behaviour; it’s equally natural for you to feel a bit unnerved by these reactions.

  • Seek to understand
  • Acknowledge emotions
  • Focus on outcomes and needs
  • Encourage alternative behaviours.