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Difficult People: Dealing with Difficult People 101


"An overburdened overstretched executive is the best executive, because he or she doesn’t have the time to meddle, to deal in trivia, to bother people." Jack Welch

Dealing with difficult people can make your life and your job miserable. Beyond a point, you cannot control difficult people. You can only control how you react to them. If these difficult people consistently anger or intimidate you, or simply rattle your cage, they ultimately control you. In dealing with difficult people, it begs us to ask the question, "Might I be a difficult person?!" We can all possess difficult people traits, but what about those individuals who are this way all the time?

3 Tips to Remember When Dealing with Difficult People

1) First learn and understand their behavior patterns. When are these people most difficult? What types of behavior makes them difficult people? Are they difficult only with you or with others as well?

2) Don’t argue with overly aggressive or excessively difficult people. These individuals often have a desire for dissension and thrive on chaos. By arguing and wanting to "win" it only adds fuel to the fire.

3) Don’t take their behavior personally. Often, they are impossible to be around because of something going on with them.

5 Common Types of Difficult People

Complainer/Whiner/Negativist: Research shows these difficult people often have an excessive need to be liked and want sympathy. By complaining and being negative, they think they’ll gain attention. These difficult people gain attention but not in a positive way. It pays to be tactfully direct with the negativist. For example, saying to them, "I understand this is something you want to talk about, and at the same time I want to make sure I get back to performing my work." Dealing with difficult people this way will usually cause them to move on to someone else; a more "captive audience" who they think will listen to their excessive whining.

Another key phrase is to say, "Pat, I want to bring something to your attention, and you may not even be aware of it. When you come in to work first thing in the morning complaining to the other staff about our new policy, it’s beginning to look like a lot of negativity. I just wanted to mention it because you may not be aware of how you’re coming across." If you think they’re already aware of it, explain it to them anyway. Dealing with difficult people requires diplomacy and tact.

Know-it-All: Listen and know what drives them. When dealing with a know-it-all like this, ask yourself if they seem to have an excessive need for control. Or, do they seem insecure, but want to appear to have all the facts on just about everything? Maybe these difficult people are threatened by you. First, let the know-it-all vent within reason. Often, once they’ve let out all their "hot air," then they’ll be more likely to listen to you. If not, and they start talking over you, it may be necessary to say, "So and so, I really have listened to everything you have to say about such-and-such, and if you’d give me just a moment, I can help you as far as….." Be direct, yet polite and tactful.

Exploder: When dealing with difficult people such as the exploder proceed with caution. Wait until they’re finished "erupting" and have "cooled their jets." You may be better off not saying much at all. Approach them again when they are in a good mood. If they are never in a good mood, approach them when they are in a better mood.

Sniper: Dealing with difficult people who stealthily throw little digs your way are tricky contenders. After they toss innuendos in a sometimes sarcastic tone and you show that you’re hurt, they accuse you of having "no sense of humor."

In this case, consider ignoring them altogether. In the future they’ll be less likely to throw in little digs because they won’t get the reaction they’re looking for from you. As Zig Ziglar once said, "No one can get your goat if they don’t know where it’s tied up."

Gossip: These difficult people either are bored, don’t have enough to occupy their time, or simply like to make others look bad and themselves look good. Gossips don’t realize that when they’re gossiping about everyone else, that people are silently wondering, "I wonder what she/he says about me when I’m not around?!" Sometimes gossips "gossip" as a distraction and to procrastinate important tasks.

Often what they’re gossiping about doesn’t even affect them. Next time this happens, listen intently, then politely say, "And how does this affect you?" They’ll get the point. Be very careful, however, with your tone of voice. You do not want to come across at all as sarcastic. Besides, the latin root of "sarcasm" is "sarco" meaning tearing of the flesh!

Difficult People = Different People

It’s been said that difficult people are often "different" people. Often a person appears difficult because they are so different from us. Dealing with difficult people isn’t easy. It takes practice to learn how to deal with them effectively.

If you are forced to interact with certain difficult people at times consider the following: keep the conversation light. Talk about "news, weather, and sports" and nothing else. Don’t let them press those buttons!

By Colleen Kettenhofen

Colleen Kettenhofen is a motivational speaker, workplace expert, & co-author of "The Masters of Success," as featured on the Today Show, along with Ken Blanchard and Jack Canfield. Topics: leadership, management, difficult people, presentation skills. To order the book, or for free articles and newsletter visit



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