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.

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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.