Are You Dealing with Difficult People?

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Several years ago, I read The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren.  The first sentence in chapter one says:

“It’s not about you.” 

So, I decided to put it down. After all, why bother?  Reading about my purpose should be about me, shouldn’t it?

Contrast that with every book I’ve read on conflict and dealing with difficult people, and each one begins with a similar theme:

“Maybe it’s you!”

 Over the years I’ve facilitated sessions on dealing with difficult people.  It is always engaging, because we all can relate to these different types at work. Do any of these sounds familiar?

  • The Dominator – aggressive, confident, bold, but lacks
  • The Accommodator – kind and conflict avoidant, will address your needs but might later resent it
  • The Procrastinator – can’t decide out of fear, or can’t delay gratification or prioritize
  • The Manipulator – charming and get you to do things you later regret and recognize the vulnerable
  • The Blamer – the victim, finding fault in others harshly and not being accountable
  • The Drama Creator – the center of attention and sucks the energy from more productive things

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While there are different approaches for these that we cover in class, here are some simple guidelines:

  1. Work on Me First
  2. Decide: Is It Important?
  3. If Important, Address it with Respect, Empathy, and Skill
  4. When Necessary, Get Help or Get Away


Work on Me First

We must always ask ourselves, “Is it me?”  In coaching, a key question I ask is, “What are you doing, by your own actions or inactions, to contribute to this situation?”  For those with low self-awareness, they can’t answer this question, but with skilled probing, I can often help the person self-diagnose and begin recognizing their contribution.  Also, it is very helpful to “think about your thinking” by naming the emotions and pondering what they are about (See David Rock, Your Brain at Work).  A difficult person might be so because they “trigger” your emotions.   Reactive people simply react and make things worse, but those manage their emotional responses are far better at dealing with the issues.


Decide: Is It Important?

At work, it is usually important to address the issue, even if we’d rather not. We often don’t have a choice as to who is on our work team, so we are forced to deal with it.  Sometimes it is not important.  An example here is when we have worked on “Me First” and discovered that we could modify our own behavior or reactions and solve the issue without further action.


If Important, Address it with Respect, Empathy, and Skill

This is where further training, coaching, or study on your own might be required.  If you are going to address it, some simple steps will help:

  • Identify the facts of the situation as you see it, and what you would like to see happen. 
  • Assess the world of the other person and what they need.
  • If you decide to confront, have your facts, show empathy, and calmly state the issues as you see it
  • If they get defensive, stay calm. Never put yourself in danger.
  • Mutually, try to resolve the issue and be clear with what you need.  

When Necessary, Get Help or Get Away

If the difficult behavior persists, decide if anything else can be done.  Get help from someone skilled to help. Internally, this might be another manager, an experienced specialist in employee relations, or a conflict resolution coach.  Where safety is a concern it might require someone in threat assessment or law enforcement.  Just remember that it is much easier to change yourself than to try to change someone else. Humans are complex, and sometimes, we just are not equipped to handle some of these situations.

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Here is a brief video clip on Harvard Business Review that you might find useful.  Enjoy!

For Executive Coaching, Leadership Development, and Organizational Assessments, contract Rodney Jackson, at 858.414.2660.

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