In the Workplace: Five Truths for Dealing with Difficult People

As a leadership coach, I’ve mentored myself and others on the subject of dealing with difficult people so frequently that I’ve drawn some conclusions about how best to move forward.

For purposes of this article, I’ll introduce them to you as options. Consider them as invitations or new ways to think about that colleague, employee or boss, who you consider to be difficult.

The term 'difficult' defines the behavior of someone that you find challenging to work with. This article does not cover how to deal with bullies or abusive behavior. That is an entirely different topic and should be addressed with the full force of your organization’s support mechanisms.

Invitation #1: Difficult people are not difficult until someone else believes that they are

People can demonstrate behavior that we may believe to be difficult to deal with, manage, work around. But people themselves are not difficult.

Complex, maybe . . . but not difficult.

Most of the ‘difficult’ people we encounter are just being who they are. They’re busy being who they’ve always been. How they act. What they say. How they interact. Their behavior has been cultivated over a lifetime.

Just like you and I, right?

Each one of us behaves in a manner that is learned, from our experience. So, how ‘difficult’ people act isn’t necessarily difficult. But, because it is different from our expectation we perceive it to be difficult. 

As soon as we believe something or someone to be difficult, it affects how we interact with them.

The truth is, we can also be the difficult ones. Yes, you too are the ‘difficult’ one to someone, somewhere.

Invitation #2: What we think about, comes about

As I learned from leadership guru Dennis Deaton years ago, “the eye sees what the mind looks for.” As soon as we believe that someone is difficult, we seek out evidence to prove that we’re correct.

Most of the time, this isn’t intentional. It’s your brain needing to find correlation and support for your belief about the difficult person.

And because we spend most of our time thinking about how other people should or shouldn’t behave with us, we spend very little time examining how we are reacting to them.

It takes two people to participate in a relationship. Rather than only entertaining the thought of how the difficult person should change, why not also think about how you may be contributing to the relationship?

In my book, “Change Your Think”, I challenge managers to notice how their thinking affects the results they get with their teams. It flows like this:

What I think drives how I feel.
How I feel drives how I act.
How I act leads to my results.

So, if I think that my colleague is difficult and hard to work with I may feel frustrated. When I feel frustrated with her I may ignore her or speak bluntly or curtly to her.

When I speak bluntly or curtly, what kind of results might I get in the relationship? When I ignore someone I work with, what kind of results might I get in the relationship?

Other people do not drive your behavior, your thoughts do.

To get a different result from yourself, you have to start thinking differently about this person and yourself in this relationship.

When you see them as an adversary, it’s likely you will find them to be. If you see them as a partner, it’s likely you will find evidence to prove that true as well. You get to pick.

You may not like what other people do or say, but not liking how they behave is not an excuse for you to decline to accept accountability for how you yourself behave.

Stop waiting for them to change, in order for you to act differently. Your behavior is your choice, not a reaction to someone else. You alone are the one in charge of yourself and your results.

This is also true for the ‘difficult’ people. The only way they will ever change is if they choose to. Not because you want them to.

Invitation #3: There will always be a difficult person

Always. I know that there are days you’d like to quit your job and mow the lawn at the local golf course. Anything to get away from (insert name here).

But the truth is, there is always going to be that person. The more we resist dealing with them, the less likely we are to adapt and learn new skills for managing different personalities and perspectives.

This is how I often explain the futility of resistance to my students. Take a walk with me, in your mind, to the beach. Let’s say we stand, arm in arm, knee-deep in the waves.

We tire of the waves. They thrash us around. They make it hard to stand in place. They are unpredictable and sometimes unexpectedly strong.

So we decide we want the waves to stop rolling in. With a collective ‘Stop!’ we yell at the waves to stop rolling in. We tell them that we’re done with them and would like them to stop right now!

What happens? Well, unless it’s the end of times, the waves continue to roll in.

This is what we do with people and circumstances in our lives. We focus on what we want to change, instead of working with ‘what is’.

The truth is, if you grow weary of the waves there are so many other options available to you.

  • You can surf with a board
  • You can body surf
  • You can float
  • You can dive through the waves
  • You can go out past the break
  • And you can get out of the ocean all together. Always an option.

But making the ocean waves stop, isn’t one. As long as we stand there, yelling at the ocean to stop, we will not find solutions for working within the waves.

As long as you stand there, yelling in your mind and to others, about how someone should change or be different or stop doing that, you will not find a solution to work within the situation. You will only find more challenges.

Just like waves, people are generally that consistent – even if they are consistently inconsistent. We can usually plan on people being exactly like we’ve known them to be.

In times when I’ve dealt with difficult people I’ve found myself almost chuckling when they behave exactly as I expect them to. I may not choose it for myself. I may not choose them as a colleague, employee or boss, but I can at least no longer pretend to be surprised when they act as they always do.

People don’t change for your reasons; they change for their own. Yelling at them to be different doesn’t work. Understanding and accepting this is probably one of the most liberating gifts you can give yourself.

Invitation #4: Everyone in your life is there for only a season

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career, it is that people move on. Nothing is static. Making large professional and life decisions because of one person’s behavior is something I encourage all of my clients to think long and hard about.

People move on. It’s very likely that the person that you want to escape is also making plans to do something new as well. And even if they aren’t, nothing stays the same for long.

You have dreams, aspirations, and goals. Never let one person sway you from your ambitions. And if you are finding that you are rattled by the behavior of someone else, it may be time to consider your own goals.

Do you have a plan? Do you know where you are going? Do you know what you want to achieve in the next year, two years, three? 

In my experience, it is our clients who are the most unclear about their future that are also the most impacted by difficult people in their lives. 

When you don’t have a plan for where you are going, it can make the challenges of today feel extremely big and unmanageable. But if you know the direction you are heading, it can help make the challenges of the day feel like blips on the radar. Suddenly they are much more manageable.

Invitation #5: You don’t have to give up who you are to work with a difficult person

But you may just have to learn new skills and challenge yourself to do more and be more for yourself and others. Often, our clients believe that they have to over-compromise to get along with a difficult person. They believe they have to give up a part of who they are to make it work.

I see it quite differently. I see that you aren’t giving anything up. You are a whole, complete person.

What I’ve learned is that, when we encounter someone we believe to be difficult, it is our cue to learn a new skill.

It is our cue to manage ourselves and others differently, and to embrace the discomfort and challenge to broaden our capabilities – whether we need to do so in our conversations, our boundaries, our communication, or our technical skills.

Difficult people can be the sharpest tool kit you’ll ever encounter. And even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time, the difficult people we encounter can truly be some of our greatest teachers.

Conclusion

I’ve offered you five invitations, five different ways to think about working with that ‘difficult’ person.

  1. Difficult people are not difficult until someone else believes that they are.
  2. What we think about, comes about.
  3. There will always be a difficult person. Always.
  4. Everyone in your life is there for a season.
  5. You don’t have to give up who you are to work with a difficult person.

It’s up to you if you choose to accept any of them. Try them on for a while. See what you think.

But whether or not you choose to change your perspective will not change the fact that there will always be another difficult person at work. How you choose to react to that person and the relationship you create with them is ultimately up to you.

Regardless of how they behave, your actions and your interactions are yours to keep.

About the Author

Kris Plachy is the CEO of Leadership Coach, a boutique coaching and leadership development firm in the US. This article was first published on LinkedIn and was re-edited for clarity and conciseness.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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