How to Deal with Difficult People

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Playing organized sports for 22 years, along with 30 years of extensive work in the corporate world, has provided Tom Flick with numerous opportunities to encounter difficult teammates.

No matter how carefully you go through life, you’re bound to confront a difficult person eventually. Whether they’re blissfully unaware of their actions or maybe even get a slight glint in their eye when they’re causing trouble, one thing is always true: Difficult people are, well, difficult.

While it may be tempting to start pulling out your hair and screaming into the abyss, there are much more productive (albeit somewhat less satisfying) ways of dealing with difficult people. Whatever their reasons may be, difficult people are usually going to stay difficult; as a result, learning how to deal with difficult people is the only thing you can do.

Life is challenging and not everyone is able to cope with all that’s going on in the world. Before we dive into ways to deal with difficult people, however, it may help to understand why some people are so infuriatingly difficult to deal with.

Why Some People Are Difficult

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably had a bad day that’s made you a bit difficult to deal with. While everyone has the occasional bout of irritability and impatience, it’s a chronic condition for some people.

While some difficult people are just plain inconsiderate, others can’t help it or even realize they’re doing something wrong. In any case, however, most difficult people suffer from some form of personality disorder.

Understanding Personality Disorders

Everybody has a different personality, and each personality has its own quirks and features. Where healthy people are able to adjust these quirks and features—personality traitsto different people and social situations, people with personality disorders can’t, or they have a much harder time doing so.

Personality disorders, then, are characterized by inflexible and repeating patterns of behavior. As a result, many difficult people suffer from personality disorders such as:

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Dependent personality disorder
  • Avoidant personality disorder
  • Obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD)

… and the list goes on. Many personality disorders take root in childhood and may result from childhood trauma, feeling outcast from family or peers, stress, and so on. Many of these environmental factors are known to cause physiological changes in children’s developing brains, resulting in adults with permanent personality disorders.

Though some can also result from genetics, personality disorders generally come in all different shapes and sizes. Since there are several types of personality disorders, however, there are also several types of difficult people.

Types of Difficult People

As if difficult people weren’t difficult enough, they also come in a variety!

If you’ve ever encountered two very different people who were equally difficult in their own ways, it’s likely that each was a different “type” of difficult person. Without going too deeply into psychology, most difficult people fall into one of these major categories:

  • Downers have a negative outlook and usually can’t see the positive side of situations.
  • Tanks have high tempers and may be bossy or abusive to get their way.
  • Know-it-alls always think they’re better or smarter than everyone—even when they’re not.
  • Yes-people are passive and often won’t contribute to work or conversations, instead letting other people do the work.

With so many types of difficult people, how can anyone possibly know how to deal with them all? Thankfully, the tips and strategies I’ll outline in the next section are effective for every type of difficult person.

Tips on How to Deal with Difficult People

Whether it’s a coworker, a family member, a teammate, or anyone else, everyone has to deal with a difficult person eventually. While it can’t be avoided, these tips can make things much easier:

1. Be understanding.

Understanding and empathy are some of the most effective tools for improving relationships. Though difficult people are certainly difficult, trying to understand and empathize with them can help you tolerate their behavior.

Remember that many difficult people suffer from personality disorders stemming from childhood trauma or hereditary diseases. With this fact in mind, try not to take their difficulty personally—they probably can’t help it.

2. Don’t try to change them.

Since difficult people often can’t help themselves, trying to change them is often a futile effort. Not only that, but trying to change a difficult person may also make the situation even worse. Instead, try to accept them and the fact that you won’t be able to change them, and spend your energy worrying about the things you can change.

3. Remain calm.

Regardless of whether difficult behavior is justifiable or not, responding to it negatively only makes the situation worse. Keep your cool. Whether you’re dealing with an angry “tank” or an insufferable “know-it-all,” remain calm and stay focused on the task at hand. If you’re expected to respond or work with a difficult person, try to compartmentalize their behavior and stay focused.

4. Set limits.

Setting limits is the best thing you can do for yourself when dealing with difficult people. Though your work or family commitments may require you to deal with difficult people from time to time, nobody can reasonably expect you to sacrifice your comfort or boundaries.

While you should always try to be kind and cooperative, be clear about your boundaries and firm in the establishment of them when difficult people start crossing the line.

5. Focus on what you can change

Unfortunately, you can’t change difficult people or the situations you find yourself in. Instead of feeling powerless, divert your focus and energy on what you can change; you can always change your attitude, your reactions, and your work on whatever needs to be done.

Rising above the situation by focusing on what you can change, difficult people and situations won’t seem so bad—and they’ll probably go away much faster.

6. Ignore them.

If a difficult person is being a bit too difficult, it sometimes helps to simply ignore them. While you don’t want to be rude or uncooperative, you have no obligation to acknowledge difficult people beyond what your work requires.

For example, if a “tank” emails you after a meeting to berate you, then ignoring them is often the best solution. This tactic not only avoids another difficult encounter, but it also prevents you from potentially stooping to their level or escalating the situation.

7. Get help from peers or superiors.

In many cases, people who are difficult for you are difficult for everyone. It may help to discuss difficult people with your peers and, when necessary, speak to your superiors if their behavior needs remediation.

As you might imagine, many of these tips are easier said than done; though they may seem straightforward, they’re easy to lose sight of when a difficult person is actively annoying or frustrating you.

If you work or live in an environment with difficult people, then everyone might benefit from coaching or team-building activities.

The Importance of Team Building

Teamwork and cooperation are difficult enough without difficult people; if you’re reading this, then you probably know just how much harder it is to work together when someone or multiple people are difficult to work with.

Again, while you can’t always change the person, you can sometimes change team dynamics in a way that minimizes their impact. Team building sessions and group workshops are some of the best ways to improve team dynamics.

Team building and coaching exercises found within group workshops also teach many of the tips we’ve discussed here, giving everyone the tools to deal with difficult people—and, sometimes, even giving difficult people a good dose of perspective.

Building Skills to Deal with Difficult People

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Though these tips will, hopefully, help you deal with difficult people, it may take some time to learn how to use them effectively. Of course, there are also other ways to deal with difficult people, depending on the person and your situation.

In any case, team building exercises, group workshops, and personalized coaching are excellent ways to hone your skills and learn how to deal with difficult people. For more information on our team-building and coaching courses, call the Tom Flick Leadership team at (425) 868-9090 or reach out to us at