Dealing with difficult people

Running into people that are tough to get along with is inevitable, both professionally and personally. There are four ways to make dealing with them easier, says Petris Lapis.

They’re hiding everywhere. Often cunningly disguised as reasonable people until they join your family, your workplace, your circle of friends, your sporting team or become a client and then—and only then—how difficult they are really shines through. It would be lovely to live in a world without difficult people, but I suspect that would sometimes mean we wouldn’t be in it either. So the best thing you can do is have a strategy for dealing with them. Fortunately there are four easy steps for dealing with difficult people.

Step 1: Create rapport

Take the steps you can to create an environment of trust, safety and comfort. This helps the difficult person to feel safe resolving the issue with you. You don’t have to like or agree with someone to be in rapport with them.

Step 2: Listen, listen and listen again

Sometimes all a person really needs is to be heard. The best thing you can do is to listen—really listen. Not the type of listening you do where you are already working out in your head all the arguments why the difficult person is wrong. I mean the type of listening where you focus all your attention on the person who is speaking and really try to work out what is driving this behaviour and how it could be solved. Everyone has a reason for their difficult behaviour and it is often fear or insecurity.

When you have listened, paraphrase back what you understand to the difficult person by saying something like, “Could I check that I understand you correctly? You are saying that…” When you have agreement with the difficult person on what the problem is, you ask why it is a problem for them. This is important because what would be a problem for the difficult person may not be a problem for you and vice versa. For example, I am habitually early for meetings but a colleague of mine is habitually late. From his perspective, he cannot understand why people get upset when he is not on time as it isn’t a problem for him.

Once you have an understanding of both the problem and why it is a problem for the other person, you have the starting point to find a solution. Sometimes being heard and acknowledged is all it takes for a person to stop being angry or aggressive. If more is required, you can then ask the difficult person what, if anything, would solve the problem. This does two things:

  • Puts the responsibility squarely back on them
  • Implies there is a solution to the problem

Step 3: Stay in adult communication mode

There are several different modes in which we can communicate with other people being child, adult and parent. When referring to modes of communication:

  • Parents are judgemental and think they’re better than others
  • Children are defensive and think they’re not as good as others
  • Adults communicate as equals by talking in logical non-emotive language and tone

The most constructive communication occurs when people are communicating in adult mode. This is when issues can be discussed and solutions found without judgement or hurt feelings. If you do everything you can to maintain the adult mode of communication, the other person will eventually communicate with you in the same way. Think of a time when you have been upset and you spoke with someone who was rational. Do you remember how quickly you calmed down to talk about the problem? It works really well.

Step 4: Find the solution

The last part involves finding a way forward based on your understanding of the problem and potential solution for the difficult person. The more positive framing you can use in your language, the more successful this part will be.

Petris Lapis has worked in accounting, law, academia, banking, business and training. She has consulted for government and industry and published several books and hundreds of papers. She has studied commerce, law, coaching, NLP and hypnosis.