Disaster Recovery

10 tips for dealing with difficult people

Some people are just plain hard to get along with. But you don't have to let them get under your skin. Calvin Sun offers advice for surviving your encounters with vexing customers and colleagues.

Unfortunately, difficult people -- be they co-workers, bosses, or customers -- face us constantly. The way we handle them can affect our job, our advancement, and even our health. Here are some tips to help you cope with these problematic relationships.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Try not to take things personally

Hey Rocky, did you get the license number... of the truck that run over your face?

In a memorable scene from the 1976 movie, Rocky is talking with his loan shark friend Gazzo, when the latter's driver asks this question. Trying to calm Rocky's furious reaction, Gazzo says, "Look Rocky, some people, they just hate for no reason."

Sometimes, people are difficult simply because of who they are. It might have nothing at all to do with you. So try not to take it personally -- even if, as in the case above, the comment is directed at you. That person might be that way with everyone. Taking such comments personally only makes dealing with that person harder for you.

2: Ask questions rather than make statements

Difficult people often have strong opinions. Sometimes they're right, but other times they might be wrong. And when they're wrong, a more effective way to point this out is to ask questions rather than to make statements. By asking questions, you might be able to help the person recognize the issues in his or her own position, with less risk of a confrontation.

For example, if someone insists on keeping all of your backup tapes in the server room, resist your first urge to state the idiocy of the idea. Consider instead a question such as, "So what will we do if a fire destroys the data center?" If the person responds, "We will simply do a restore," ask, "How will we do a restore if the only backup tapes were destroyed in the fire?"

3: Have supporting evidence in writing

Are you in a meeting and trying to make a point but getting major resistance from someone? If so, have written documentation that supports your claims. You will have far more credibility if, for example, you can point to a Gartner Group study or TechRepublic whitepaper that supports your choice of a vendor than if you simply state reasons on your own.

4: Ensure understanding and communication

Effective communication is always important, but never more so than when you are dealing with a difficult person. Many times, an argument will develop because of communication breakdowns. When someone is talking, listen carefully and make sure you understand that person's point before you respond. Likewise, make sure the other person understands your own point.

5: Use appropriate phrases when needed

If you sense that a communication breakdown has occurred, address it immediately. The following phrases can be useful, and their contexts should be obvious:

  • "That's not what I said."
  • "That was not my question."
  • "Please let me finish."
  • "We're [actually] saying the same thing."

6: Use "I" rather than "you"

Using a statement that contains "I" involves less risk than a statement that contains "you." The first pronoun doesn't sound like an accusation, so people are less likely to react negatively. For instance, instead of saying, "You never sent me that email," consider saying, "I never received that email."

7: Separate the issue from the person

When discussing an idea that a difficult person advances, try to separate the idea from the person. In particular, if you have a concern, make clear that the concern lies with the idea. Yes, the difficult person might still take offense, but it's less likely. So instead of saying, "Your idea has several issues," consider "That idea has several issues."

Likewise, if a difficult person is commenting on an idea of yours, separate yourself from it and look at it objectively. Criticisms of the idea will be less disturbing to you.

8: Be assertive rather than obnoxious

In an article I once wrote for job seekers about interview skills, I suggested that the interviewee should write a thank-you note afterward. Boy, did I get hammered for that idea. One person commented that if he received such a thank-you note, he would post it on a bulletin board so that others could laugh at it.

Of course, I thought this comment was ridiculous but did not say so. Nor did I suggest that the poster himself was ridiculous. I merely replied that I was sorry he felt that way and that my suggestion was based on how I was brought up. I also said that any company that treated my thank-you note that way wasn't one I would be happy working at anyway. In other words, I simply stated my reasons and arguments, but did not attack the other person.

This same approach can help you in dealing with difficult people. You need not be a doormat, but you also need not be as rude as the other person is being. Simply stick to your facts and your arguments and remain professional.

9: Turn the tables

Difficult people like to take the offensive, and they like to put other people on the defensive. Try turning the tables on that person. For example, if someone says, "We can't do that," ask, "What CAN you do?" If that person says, "We can't be ready by that date," ask "When CAN you be ready?" or "What factors are keeping you from being ready on that date?"

10: Express appreciation when appropriate

Even if someone has a difficult personality, that person can help you learn a skill or give you insight. If that happens, let the person know you appreciate it. Just be sincere. Nothing turns people off more than someone who is trying to curry favor. One hint: if you do thank or express appreciation to such a person, do it without smiling, because your words will sound more sincere that way.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

8 comments
garygoosby
garygoosby

This is excellent advise. I recently lost my job due to an angry customer who felt he was the rhyme and reason for all modern thinking. I tried to rationalize with the customer and state the obvious to him...he wasn't having any of it. I offered to send a service tech to him and a supervisor, still he was the obnoxious knutt. Couldn't crack him. I tried many of the techniques described in the article but he was hell bent on being frustrated and down right mean. I feel confident that I did all I could to pacify the situation but in this economy unfortunately there are companies who stand too firm on "the customer is always right" philosophy. Anyway I agree in full with the art of woo and sooth the situation with skill sets described in the article. Keep up the good work TR great words of wisdom!

v r
v r

Excellent article, concisely stated. Thank you. For further reading people may consider the book, Crucial Conversations.

Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

Some of the most difficult types are the ones who KNOW they're right, and no amount of reason will budge them. To paraphrase William Lloyd Garrison: With reasonable men I will reason, with compassionate men I will plead, but some people need a baseball bat upside the head to get the idea.

mail2ri
mail2ri

Thanks Calvin. These tips should work with people who are reasonable and can be persuaded to agree with us. However, there is no cure against compulsive arguers and pests (like you mentioned, not because of who we are, but because of who they are). Very often, in my corporate sector career of almost two decades, I have realized that bosses often like to skirt interpersonal issues involving both intra-department as well as inter-department personnel. Hence, your tips would be useful in these cases, with people who are generally nice and reasonable. However, I have observed that there are quite a few sadists at highly competitive workplaces, where people pick up arguments just to dominate others or belittle them by throwing their weight around. Such people are best avoided or ignored, and are not worth the time and efforts required for persuasion.

chaz15
chaz15

not to criticise THEIR fairness initially. You might certainly say - that doesn't seem at all fair from MY point of view. It's much harder for them to then try to criticise YOUR point of view! If they re-emphasise their point of view, keep turning it back to from your viewpoint! They might say you're not listening, or their viewpoint is more important, but you can then add that it's your own viewpoint YOU have to live with. They are not actually doing the job, YOU are! I'm the one who has to deal with/try to deal with these issues directly. I have to take responsibility for outcomes. I have to try to use my responsibility wisely. I have full responsibility for my own actions and results therefrom. I am responsible for my own work and my own actions ... etc A subservient attitude, eg I will try my best to correct this, or it won't happen again is only advisable in the face of constant ongoing pressure, or if you KNOW you were wrong in some respect. Otherwise you are acknowledging the criticism! Which is often actual, rather than tantamount to, BULLYING of you! And - Don't be afraid to tell others. They might well have had the same experience from this very difficult ... 'person'!

chaz15
chaz15

If you receive any strong negative criticism, stop the meeting immediately at that point, and say you will only resume when you have a witness present. This might be a friend, colleague, or preferably union representative. Take notes of exactly what was said while still fresh in your mind, and ASK for the criticism to be repeated word for word when a witness is present. It's often a power thing, and having had some of the most difficult people imaginable to deal with, I have a good experience in ways of diluting the ABUSE these people often dish out. Some just liked to see other people cringe, and others were about as insensitive of others feelings as could possibly be. - And don't be afraid to express some of YOUR feelings, such as - I find that extremely upsetting considering how hard and diligently I work; I am a very genuine person and I do my very best; This couldn't be more distressing to me; I would really appreciate some genuine help in this matter; I am at a complete and total loss to know how you've arrived at that opinion of me or my work; I don't feel that this is in any way deserved; I feel this is totally unjust; I feel less and less appreciated each time you speak to me... and so on. I would avoid, at least in the first instance, any discussion of 'fairness' as difficult people very rarely act fairly to everyone and their view of fairness will invariably differ greatly from yours! Also, it is best to try your best to defend yourself and avoid actively criticising the difficult person's stance or attitude as this will just divert them to further criticise you. At a later stage, of course, eg if repeated with a union rep present, it might well be appropriate then and only then to introduce concepts of fairness, or unfairness, as grievance procedures may then be invoked, and you will need the witness for any comments in reply. Discrimination is different and you are quite within your rights to point out what you consider as discrimination, and in fact you should do so immediately this occurs, and again consider and point out grievance procedures. Also, consider introducing you as well as your work. They may back down a little and re-define crticisms as work only. If they don't, you can be sure there are personal issues involved as well, ie opinions of you as well as of your work, eg do they consider your face fits. If there is a low or 'devalued' opinion of you for whatever reason (could be something as simple as a qualification or route to qualification - some bosses hate people having better qualifications than they themselves have, or do not consider some qualifications as being equally commensurate), do consider strongly changing jobs or moving elsewhere either within or without of the company. At least then you would have a different boss, maybe difficult in different ways, but at least a DIFFERENT person, maybe with altogether different views! And a good chance of being properly appreciated, and not over-looked, and maybe even a good and easy-going boss!

LewSauder
LewSauder

As a consultant, I've dealt with difficult clients who sometimes like to take things out on their consultants. They assume their higher rates entitle them to it, and consultants can't run to HR. I've always taught new consultants to quickly develop a thick skin for client abuse. These tips are great advice for doing so. Thanks! Lew Sauder, Author, Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting (www.Consulting101Book.com)

sissy sue
sissy sue

These tips are very helpful, and not just in the workplace and not just when encountering difficult people. Sometimes arguments result even though two people agree on the major premise. For example, an argument between my cousin and me about health care started to get heated, even though we both felt the same way about the issue. The particulars on how to approach the problem were our points of dispute. I would have done a lot better to acknowledge our points of agreement and to let it go at that.