Living with Difficult People

Living with Difficult People

In our daily life, we find ourselves encountering more and more people who are uncompromising, overbearing, resentful, uncooperative, manipulative or just plain pushy. Whether we are dealing with angry customers, overworked office staff, insurance representatives or aggressive salespersons, each situation challenges our patience and communication skills.

If we want to foster effective communication with difficult people, we must first realize that we only have control over our own behavior. We have no control over how someone else acts, but we can influence to some degree how they respond to you. Often, the key is to set an example. In other words, don’t tell someone to calm down.

When dealing with difficult people, it is also important to accept the fact that two-way communication is probably not part of their agenda. When we first encounter someone who feels angry or upset, it’s sometimes hard to get a word in; then, when we do finally have the opportunity to speak, the individual seems unwilling to listen. Does this sound familiar?

Effective communication will improve the quality of your interactions with everyone, including difficult people.

Why “cope” with difficult people?


  • We rely on other people to do our jobs
  • We cannot avoid conflict
  • We must control stress in our lives
  • We cannot change other people

Why are people difficult?


  • Feeling thwarted or threatened
  • Exceptional levels of stress
  • Your reactions to their difficult behavior
  • Learned behavior (getting their way)
  • Inflexibility (on both sides)

What can we do about it?

The goal of conflict resolution is not to eliminate conflict (or the other person) but to handle it constructively.

10 Types of Difficult Behaviours

Sherman Tanks

§ Attacking, accusing, abusive, abrupt, intimidating, overwhelming, confrontational

§ Feel strong need to prove that their view of the world is always right

§ Get irritated or angry if sense resistance

§ See tasks as clear and concrete

§ Value assertiveness and confidence


§ Teasing, not-too-subtle digs used to make you look foolish in groups

§ Hides behind crowds and social constraints

§ Often very witty

§ Share Tank’s strong sense of how others should act but is often unrealistic

§ Can turn into a Tank if exposed

Exploders (Grenades)

§ Adult tantrum, rage barely under control

§ When person feels thwarted and threatened

§ May cry, be silently enraged, or yell/scream

§ Anger often moves to suspicion and blaming

§ Creates highest amount of resentment among others of all behaviors

Know-it-all Experts

§ Highly productive, thorough and accurate thinkers, careful planners

§ Believe facts and knowledge provide stability; answers lie within themselves

§ Low tolerance for correction/contradiction

§ Condescending, don’t wait for others to catch up to their thought process or seek input from others


§ Seek the admiration and respect of others by trying to act like experts when they are not

§ Don’t always know they are not experts

§ Curious people; like to learn a little about a lot of things


§ Want to be liked and loved by everyone

§ Make others feel liked and approved of

§ Tell you things that are satisfying to hear

§ Often use humor to ease conversation

§ Say “Yes” to everything but often don’t deliver because they are over-committed

§ Can secretly be resentful of doing so much

Indecisives (indecisive stallers)

§ Put off making important decisions because they don’t want to hurt anyone

§ Have high standards

§ Strive to help people

§ Usually stall until the decision is made

Unresponsives (The Clam)

§ Close down, even when asked direct question (answer yes, no, I don’t know)

§ Clam up when you need a response or expect conversation

§ Difficult to determine why they are silent

Complainers (Cry Baby)

§ Find fault with everything, complain constantly, accusatory, prescriptive

§ Feel someone should be doing something but feel helpless to take action

§ Have distinct idea of what should be done

§ Usually is some truth to their complaints

Negativists (Wet Blanket)

§ Feel defeated and dispirited as though they have little power over their lives

§ Pessimistic, more bitter than complainers

§ Bring others down quickly

§ Say “We’ve tried this before” or “That won’t work” without looking for solutions

10 Coping Methods

Sherman Tanks

n Stand up for yourself without fighting

n Get their attention, carefully

n Get them to sit down

n Restate the problem briefly

n Speak from your own point of view

n Be ready to be friendly


n Surface the attack immediately

n Ask about intent and relevancy

n Seek group confirmation or denial of the sniper’s criticism

n Move on to solve any problems uncovered

n Resolve on-going problems with friendly snipers in private

Exploders (Grenades)

n Give them time to run down

n Get their attention

n Show that you take them seriously

n Reduce the intensity (take a break)

n Identify and solve underlying problems

Know-it-all Experts

n Do your homework

n Listen and acknowledge respectfully

n Present your views indirectly

n Ask extensional questions to get details

n Acknowledge their competence

n Make time for reflection

n As last resort, let them be the expert


n Give them a little attention

n Clarify for specifics

n State the facts as an alternative version

n Give them a way out

n Break the cycle


n Make honesty non-threatening

n Be personal – when you can

n Listen to their humor

n Be prepared to compromise if in conflict

n Help them learn to plan realistically

n Ensure commitment

n Strengthen the relationship

Indecisives (indecisive stallers)

n Establish a comfort zone

n Surface the issues

n Help them problem solve (make decision)

n Reassure after decision is made

n Ensure follow through

n Strengthen the relationship

Unresponsives (The Clam)

n Ask open-ended questions

n Use the friendly, silent stare

n Don’t fill the space with words

n Comment on what’s happening (guess)

n If person stays silent, terminate meeting and reschedule

n Show the future

Complainers (Cry Baby)

n Listen attentively to their complaints

n Acknowledge what they say

n Be prepared to interrupt to get specifics

n Re-state the facts without agreeing or apologizing

n Move quickly into problem solving

n Draw the line (what do you expect to happen)

Negativists (Wet Blanket)

n Avoid getting drawn in by stating your own realistic optimism

n Don’t argue

n Explore the problem before solutions

n Set a horror floor

n Use comments to make decisions

n Be ready to take action on your own

Acknowledge Needs Issue


§ Control (to get the job done)

Sherman Tanks, Snipers, Know-it-alls

§ Perfection (to get it right)

Complainers, Negativists, Unresponsives


§ Approval Seeking (to get along)

Super-agreeables, Indecisives

§ Attention Getting (to get appreciation)

Exploders, Think-they-know-it-alls, Snipers

Basic Strategy

Nearly all conflicts involve underlying emotional issues. The stronger the feelings, the more difficult the resolution. To resolve conflicts, then, it is absolutely necessary to address the feelings of all parties. Listed below is a conflict resolution model based on Emotional Intelligence. The basic steps are outlined below – SSM model:

Seek to UnderstandSeek to Understand

  • § Validate each person’s feeling
  • § Confirm a willingness to solve problem
  • § Seek understanding of the cause of the feeling
  • § Confirm accurate understanding; paraphrase
  • § Identify the underlying unmet emotional needs
  • § Show empathy
  • § Ask the powerful and positive question:

What would help you feel better?

Seek to Be UnderstoodSeek to Be Understood

  • § Share your feelings & needs
  • § Confirm accurate reception & understanding

Mutually Generate Options & ResolutionsMutually Generate Options & Resolutions

  • § Brainstorm solutions (while withholding evaluation/judgment)
  • § Discuss each parties feelings about alternatives
  • § Make selection which maximizes positive feelings and minimizes negative feelings


§ Avoid attributing internal motives to behavior

§ Always look for unmet needs

§ Remember that everybody is somebody’s difficult person sometime

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One thought on “Living with Difficult People

  • These are really good points. I’ve read some of these pointers in the book “Perfect Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People” (Benjamin) and they have really worked. However, you have to constantly use these methods to manage it. Some people can change their behavior and some of them will not change a bit.

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