Difficult People Play Dirty
”To err is human, to blame the next guy even more so.” – Unknown
Some of the greatest difficulties we encounter on the job come from having to
work with people we don’t like. The sense of frustration and dread can create
such loathing for the work environment that it can actually affect physical health.
If you have been, or are currently, embroiled in a negative work situation, then
you know. Learning ways to deal with such situations may be easier said than
done, but with practice they can prove effective.
“Everybody has individual attitudes. Positive morale is created by bringing these
attitudes together through communication,” said Susie Chapa, coordinator of
Cooperative Education at The University of Texas-Pan American’s Career
Placement Services Office. “Having respect for each other and then
communicating openly builds a strong office team spirit that is at the core of
office morale. It can prove effective when dealing with difficult people too.”
Harriet Meyerson, author and founder of The Confidence Center, spoke with
Robert M. Bramson Ph.D., author of “Coping With Difficult People,” and
published their conversation in Vitality magazine in October 2001. Dr. Bramson
provided the following advice about working with difficult people:
“Individuals behave in a difficult manner because they have learned that doing so
keeps others off balance and incapable of effective action. Worst of all, they
appear immune to all the usual methods of communication and persuasion
designed to convince or help them change their ways,” Bramson said in his
interview with Meyerson.
Bramson offers the following strategies for coping with such people.
Consider these “don'ts” when dealing with difficult people:
• Don't take difficult people's behavior personally. Their troublesome
behavior is habitual and affects most people with whom they come in
• Don't fight back or try to beat them at their own games. They have been
practicing their skills for a lifetime.
• Don't try to appease them. Difficult people have an insatiable appetite for
• Don't try to change them. You can only change your responses to their
Here's how you can cope effectively with four common types of difficult people.
Openly Aggressive People:
Stand up to them, but don't fight. Overly aggressive people expect others to
either run away from them or react with rage. Your goal is simply to assertively
express your own views, not try to win a battle of right and wrong.
Difficult people are experts at taking potshots and making sneak attacks in subtle
ways, such as humorous put-downs, sarcastic tones of voice, disapproving looks
You may feel uncomfortable replying to them because you don't like
confrontation. This, however, allows snipers to get away with their covert hostility.
Respond to a sniper with a question. “That sounds like you're making fun of me.
Are you?” A sniper usually replies to such accusations with denial, “I'm only
Nevertheless, questioning covert attacks will reduce the chance for similar
attacks in the future.
These are fearful people who have little faith in themselves and others because
they believe in a hostile world. Their constant discouragement and complaining
can bring everyone to despair.
“Don't try to argue these difficult people out of their negativity. Instead, respond
with your own optimistic expectations,” says Bramson.
People who ignore you, give you sullen looks, and/or respond to every question
with either “I don't know” or silence are difficult because they're timid. Silent
people get away with not talking because most people are uncomfortable with
silence and are too quick to fill in the gaps. Ask them questions that can't be
answered with just a “yes” or “no,” such as, “Why is it uncomfortable for you to
answer my questions?”
Then wait at least one full minute before you say anything. This long silence may
make them uncomfortable enough to say something. If they do start talking, listen
“20 Ways to Deal with Difficult People” written by Nancy Evans, co-founder of the
Web site iVillage, provides straightforward advice for dealing with difficult people.
Some of her advice is listed here.
o Remove the blame factor - Oftentimes, indirect language works
because it focuses on the project rather than the person. Instead of
saying, “You need to get it to me,” you can say, “Reports must be
turned in by ...” or, “Payroll must be completed by ...” That way,
people are less likely to feel accused or hounded.
o Talk in person or by phone
o Be brief - When discussing problems, keep it short and direct. It
minimizes a stressful situation for both of you.
o Handle a whiner with tact - Don't ask open-ended questions, not
even “How are you?” Limit your greetings to “good morning” and
“good evening.” And be busy all the time. The words “I'm sorry, I
don't have time to chat right now” are your friends. Know them, love
them, use them.
o Do your homework - When you go to your boss with an issue or
problem, make a list of the specifics you want to address, research
the issue and get your facts right. When you have everything ready,
schedule a meeting, and be cool and professional.
o Don't complain - Watch what you say to anyone at work. The only
reason to bring up negative issues is to create a plan for correcting
o Let go of your anger - Sometimes it's hard to get past your own
feelings of anger or hurt and your need to get them out. Write how
you feel in a letter and mail it to yourself, or keep it at home. Then
resolve to put your anger aside. If you're curious in a couple of
months, read the letter. You may be surprised at how those feelings
o Stick to the points - Whenever you have to discuss something
with a difficult coworker, write down three to five main points, and
stick to them. Even if they get off the subject and start saying nasty
things, always come back to your main points.
o Keep people in the loop - Don't spring any surprises on your boss
or coworkers – like a new deadline or a developing problem.
People don't like that, and they can react defensively.
o Stop gossip - Gossipers just want to stir up trouble and they need
attention and fuel to keep the conversation going. If you don't
respond, they move on.
o Be friendly without getting too close - You don't have to be
bosom buddies with everyone at work. It is important to have a
friendly relationship with your coworkers, but look for emotional
fulfillment in your life, away from work.
o Cultivate small talk - Ask people about the things they like –
music, movies and pastimes – to disarm them, get them talking and
make them feel comfortable with you. Then you can bring in
magazine clippings or start conversations that create goodwill.
This article has provided a few solutions on how to deal with difficult people. Most
of us at some time face such issues. Sometimes the situation blows over and at
other times it lingers indefinitely, never resolving fully to an agreeable
Nothing, however, in this article will be of any use if not practiced, practiced and
practiced. Unless the offending party disappears, it is up to you and only you to
learn how to change the situation for you. Remember, changing someone else is
”If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your
attitude. Don't complain.” - Maya Angelou, author