July 3, 2013 2:55 pm


So you work in an office.   How familiar are these situations?

  • Your client approves your recommendation first time, just as it is
  • Your supplier always checks with you before going over-estimate
  • It’s Q3, and your Finance Director increases your budget by 30%

Not very?

Life throws us difficult situations every day.   Most of the time, everyone strives together as a team to conquer those difficult situations.

3 techniques for handling difficult people

But every now and again, we hit a bad apple.  Someone who seems to make it their business to make your life difficult.

Handling difficult people is at best, a distraction, and at worst, can force you to leave a job. So our career progression can depend on how good we are at handling these bad apples, yet it’s something we rarely receive training on.

There are thousands of blogs and hundreds of books out there offering advice.  In truth, you can boil it all down to a few simple techniques for handling difficult people. Here are three you can try right now:

1.  They might never change.  But that’s ok.

“The first thing you need to do in dealing with a difficult person is not to control his behaviour but to control your own”.  William Ury, co-founder of Harvard’s influential Program of Negotiation, articulates our first step in dealing with difficult people very well.

Although it may never be possible to change your difficult person, you can significantly improve your ability to cope with them.  Sure, you’re the one doing all the running, but if it makes your life better, then it’s going to be worth the effort.


2.  Before reacting to a difficult person, consider what’s driving them.

This principle was famously summed up by Stephen R Covey in his seminal 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  Habit #5 is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

Before you react, take a moment to imagine the world through their eyes.  What pressures are they under at work, at home?  What goals are they trying to achieve professionally or personally?  What is happening right now that might be affecting the way they act?

Once you’ve considered the options, settle on some possible explanations for their behaviour.  You may or may not be right, but just the act of thinking about their world view will give you more stamina, more compassion and as a result you’ll be more likely to find a way through.


3. Check your assumptions

After our first few negative interactions with our difficult person, we’ve been ‘primed’ to think that all subsequent interactions will be negative.

For example, what’s your first thought when, from a distance, you spot a peak-capped parking attendant peering at your car windscreen?  Is it ‘ah, he’s clearly admiring my pristine car interior!’?  Unlikely.

It’s the same with our difficult person.  Once we’re primed, we’re likely to interpret whatever they do or say in a negative light.  We may react negatively, and suddenly, we’re in a vicious circle.

Instead, consider Paul Watzlawick’s Story of the Hammer:

A man wants to hang a painting. He has the nail, but not the hammer. Therefore it occurs to him to go over to the neighbour and ask him to lend him his hammer.

But at this point, doubt sets in. “What if he doesn’t want to lend me the hammer?” he thinks. “Yesterday he barely spoke to me. Maybe he was in a hurry. Or, perhaps, he holds something against me.”

“But why?” he continues to think. “I didn’t do anything to him. If he asked me to lend him something, I would, at once. How can he refuse to lend me his hammer? People like him make other people’s life miserable. Worst, he thinks that I need him because he has a hammer. This has got to stop!”

And suddenly the guy runs to the neighbour’s door, rings, and before letting him say a word, he screams “You can keep your hammer, you bastard!”

So, stop for a moment to consider whether you’re jumping to conclusions.  Then ‘first seek to understand’.  Ask calm, rational questions about what’s behind their comment or action.  It’s important too to develop your Active Listening skills.  Although Active Listening can be tough to implement in the heat of the moment, the concept is simple and becomes easier with practice.


Our Handling Difficult People training course examines these and other techniques for handling difficult people.  It also gives you a rare opportunity to test out what might work best in your own situation when you’re trying to handle difficult people .

If you can suppress your natural instinct to react negatively before considering the other’s drivers and your assumptions, over time, you might find that your difficult person becomes less ‘difficult’ and more of a ‘person’.

Good luck and keep us posted!

A version of this post first appeared on IPA.co.uk