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Dealing with Difficult People


Michael Beck - Expert Author

Employee Management Articles
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You know, this would be a great business if it weren’t for having to deal with people all the

OK, so maybe I’ve exaggerated things a bit, but we’ve all certainly heard that saying before.
Why does that sentiment ring true for so many folks? Obviously it’s because of all the people
challenges we’re presented with in our business. Virtually every one of my clients over the
years has brought up the subject of dealing with difficult people. There’s no escaping the fact
that they come into everyone’s lives at one time or another. Sometimes they come in the form
of an unhappy or hard-to-get-along-with client, customer, or co-worker. Sometimes they’re a
person we report to or someone who reports to us. And sometimes they’re just someone we
happen to come in contact with like a store clerk. Whoever they are, they can cause anxiety,
frustration, concern, or anger in us and can even cause us to become like them – someone
difficult to deal with.

Sometimes the best way to deal with a difficult person is to avoid them altogether – give them
wide berth. But often we don’t have that option. The difficult person is someone we simply
have to deal with. Most people would say that in those situations, we have three options.
These options are: 1) Try to change ourselves, 2) Try to change the other person, and 3)
Resolve to tolerate the situation – basically decide to put up with them. I’d like to suggest that
there’s a fourth, very effective option as well – perhaps the most effective of the four options.
Let’s spend some time discussing these four options.

1) Try to Change Ourselves
Your first instinct might be, “Why should I be the one to change?” In fact quite often you’ll
find that to be an appropriate response! Often there is nothing about what we do or say to
cause the other person to be difficult. We are usually not the catalyst for their behavior. But
sometimes we are. Haven’t you had people in your life who just rubbed you the wrong way?
You’re fine around pretty much everyone else, but around a particular person, you get
defensive, anxious, angry, and difficult to deal with? I think we all have. If you’ve had people
in your life who cause you to become difficult or obstinate, then doesn’t it stand to reason that
you may be causing that same reaction in someone? It’s in situations like this that we have to
examine our own behaviors and reflect on whether we’re the cause. Frequently however,
we’re blind to our shortcomings. We don’t see what we don’t see. How do you find out
whether you’re the cause of the other person’s difficult behavior? Option 4 holds the answer.

2) Try to Change the Other Person
In Option 1 – Try to Change Ourselves – our initial instinct was to ask, “Why should I be the one
to change?” Our first reaction was one of justification. Basically saying, “I’m not the one with
the problem…” Guess what happens when we try to change the other person? You got it.
They have the same reaction we would have had. Everyone feels justified in their behavior.
No one intends to behave arbitrarily or irrationally. We always have a reason for acting the
way we do. Attempting to force the other person to change doesn’t work. Just ask any
spouse! No one will change anything about themselves until and unless they choose to do so.
Option 4 holds the answer.

3) Decide to Put Up with Them
“Tolerate it.” “Just deal with it.” The only thing that accepting things the way they are
accomplishes is to postpone a confrontation. Although this course of action (or inaction)
appears to avoid a confrontation, in fact what it does is eliminate any chance of dialogue and
replaces it with a certain confrontation down the road. Even though this path is frequently
taken, it has some far-reaching unhappy consequences. Let’s talk about how it affects you,
the other person, and your team.

You end up spending valuable energy by deciding to tolerate this person. It takes energy to
deal with a poor situation – energy which you need for other, more positive and productive
efforts. In addition, by tolerating this person, your attitude suffers. Although we decide to
tolerate it, we don’t ignore it. By dwelling on the thing that irritates us so much, we give it
fuel and we diminish our attitude. If you’re successful in your business you already know the
importance of maintaining a positive attitude. Tolerating something that reduces our level of
energy and our attitude is unacceptable.

The Other Person
Think about this for a minute… No one sets out to do a poor job. Everyone starts out intending
to do a good job. They have a positive attitude and high aspirations. Nevertheless, sometimes
things change. They become complacent, lose interest, and experience a drop in attitude.
Why is that? Has that ever happened to you? I believe it’s happened to each of us at some
times during our career(s). If you reflect back to that time, you’ll find one of two reasons for
this shift. One reason is that the work you were doing really didn’t interest you. One of the
great revelations in life is that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you
enjoy it
. Think about the implications of this. It means that even if we’re really good at the
work we do, we may actually find it unenjoyable. Do you think that situation would affect
someone’s attitude? You bet. Work would become unfulfilling. The other reason we might
have become complacent, lost interest, and experienced a drop in attitude is that we became
disillusioned with someone or something. Perhaps our boss or our company did something
which lacked integrity or perhaps what we thought was true turned out not to be. In situations
where integrity is an issue is there a way to make things better? Not in the near term. Maybe
never. In situations where the reality of the situation is a different one than was first
imagined, is there a way to make things better? Maybe. Option 4 holds the answer.

Your Team
It never fails. A manager tolerates a difficult person for an extended time, hoping they’ll
“come around” and hoping to avoid a confrontation. Then finally something happens – some
event or challenge - and they feel they have no choice but to confront them which, by that
point, leads to a termination. And then the manager is surprised at the number of team
members who come forth and comment on what a drag on the team that person had been.
They’ll speak up about their poor attitude or poor work ethic. And they’ll often add, “I don’t
know why you kept them so long!” Don’t be fooled into thinking this difficult person was only
affecting you. Your people are aware of most of the things going on around them, just like you
are. When you don’t address a difficult person - when you decide to tolerate them - your
whole team is affected. In addition, ask yourself this: What does it say about you as a leader
and what does it say about your integrity? If you say you value a certain set of traits and then
allow the opposite to exist, what does it say about you? Tolerating a difficult person doesn’t
work in the long run.

4) Work to Understand Their Motivation
Option 4 - The key to success. This option is about being a leader and being an effective
communicator. It’s about being compassionate and strong at the same time. It’s about being
good for someone rather than being good to them. It’s about understanding rather than

This solution is about taking the time to understand the other person’s motivation for acting
the way they do. If you’re effective at this, you’ll be able to either help them change their
perspective on things or help them to move on to something that better suits them. This
solution is about helping people grow and maximize their talents.

How do you come to understand the motivation for their actions and attitude? Just ask. Ask
why they act the way they do. Usually they’ll be more than happy to tell you. If their answer
seems odd or incorrect, you need to keep asking questions to get at the heart of the issue so
you can either shift their perspective or help them move on. Once you’re at the core issue you
have the ability to make a difference in their life. It’s amazing what can come out of a sincere
desire to help. How would you have felt if, at those times when you felt complacent with a
poor attitude, someone took the time to listen to you and offer some other perspectives? How
would your life be different today if someone helped you see yourself and/or your life
differently? As a leader, you have the ability to make a difference in someone’s life.

About the Author

Written by Michael Beck, an Executive Coach and Strategist specializing in employee engagement, executive development, and leadership effectiveness. Connect on LinkedIn: and visit to learn more.

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2008-11-24 12:46:36 in Employee Articles

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