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How to Deal with Difficult People

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Have you ever been in a situation where you asked a question and someone was rude to you for no apparent reason? If so, you are most likely feeling hurt from their condescending response. As a human being, no one likes to be treated as if they are incompetent for asking a question, especially if it is in your place of work.

If you have experienced a scenario like this in your personal life or the workplace, it can be tough to know how to deal with difficult people like this. Responding in situations like this is much easier said than done, especially if the person is a customer, co-worker or even a supervisor. You have to be careful how you go about confronting the person, and the confrontation could need to be handled differently depending on the individual. For this reason, we have come up with two different approaches to how you may want to address a difficult person.

Approach #1: Ask Questions

If you are dealing with someone who is a supervisor or customer, your approach may need to be a little more gentle. Start by asking open-ended questions that follow up to their difficult comments. Try asking them if there is something that you are missing, and let them know you sense something is off based off of the tone of their response.

Chances are, they may not even realize that they had a sarcastic tone, or if they did, you are now having an open conversation that can hopefully resolve the issue. Continue asking questions until you understand why they may have responded the way they did. Having this conversation can help to soften the situation. They may apologize, or you may say you're sorry and that you just wanted to make sure everything was okay.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – Stephen Covey

Approach #2: Be Direct

If the difficult person is someone such as a colleague, your dialogue may need to change to have this conversation. In this situation, it would make more sense to be direct. Ask them why they answered the way they did or if they are frustrated. Their answer to you will most likely be a simple “yes” or “no” response. Either they are frustrated with you and your question and can explain why, or they aren’t and can realize that they should have answered in a less aggressive and sarcastic way.

Whichever way they respond, let them know that you understand they are frustrated or angry, and it is making it difficult for you to understand and communicate with them.  Let them know you respect them as a professional and would appreciate better communication in the future. Be honest about how you are feeling and specific in what they said. Consider your relationship with the person, and if you feel comfortable going more in-depth, then do so.

Having confrontational conversations with people is never easy, but sometimes need to happen to keep these issues from progressing. Keep in mind for the future not only the two different approaches you may want to use when dealing with difficult people, but also the 10 Keys, specifically Keys 5, 6, and 8.

5.    Requiring Accountability—Upholding and reinforcing individual responsibility to the organization. 

6.    Valuing What You Believe—Linking employees’ actions/behaviors to organizational values—building a healthy culture.

8.    Sharing Continuously—Establishing open and honest two-way communication.


Danielle McLaren