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Are there really difficult people? Yes… and here’s what to do about them!

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how to deal with difficult peopleOne of the things I hear frequently in my live workshops is some version of, “I work with Roger and he is impossible. He’s so difficult that I try to avoid him when I can.” Some people go on to explain that the person is so unpleasant that they are thinking of transferring to a different department or even quitting their job, just to get away from them.

Other stories are not about work, but about personal relationships that are in crisis because either one or both of the people are “difficult.”

Sometimes the story ends with the question: “Is it just me, or is this person really being difficult?” The answer is that, yes there really are difficult people in our lives. While avoidance can work as a short- term strategy, a better plan is to understand why the person is being difficult and use my three-step strategy to get them to stop being difficult with you.

We all know from life experience that some people are easier to get along with than others. These people always seem to know what to say, they have interesting stories, and they are actually fun to talk to.

Then there are the people who are so unpleasant that just thinking about them makes you break into a sweat. You will do almost anything to avoid them.

While there are many reasons why people are difficult, let’s get a quick overview of some of the common difficult people types and what causes their behaviors.

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The Only Reason People Are Difficult

There are dozens of reasons why people might become difficult, but they all come down to one explanation—It works for them in some way.

The bad behavior gets them something they want and while being a difficult person may have bad side effects (such as nobody likes them), over a period of time, they have been rewarded for using it.

Years ago, I was doing a workshop for a company and I began by asking the group if there were any questions. I still remember one man whose arm shot up like it was on a spring. “Yes,” he said, “I have a question. Why is my wife yelling at me all the time?”

The class laughed nervously, but I already knew the answer.

His wife was constantly yelling at him because she didn’t think he was listening (she was probably right) and she thought that if she talked louder he would hear her better and listen. It was a flawed communication strategy, of course, because no matter how loudly she talked he still didn’t listen to her.

But, even though the strategy was flawed and had bad side effects (the husband didn’t like her) it was the best solution she could come up with and sometimes it worked, so she kept using it.

When you think about it, you can see that she was trying to get something positive out of her behavior, which was to get her husband to listen to her. The problem is that she was using bad behavior to try to get a good (from her perspective) result.

I’m sure that both the husband and the wife in this relationship would describe each other as being “difficult.” And they would both be right.


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Some Common Types of Difficult People

There are dozens of types of bad behaviors and difficult people. We could spend days studying them all, so to keep it manageable I’m going to concentrate on a few of the common difficult behaviors that are caused by good motivations taken to an extreme.

Here are some examples of how a small change in a positive motivation to create a difficult person:

Difficult Behaviors
Action Control Bully, Expert, Time Bomb
People Attention or Approval Expert, Time Bomb
Safety Appreciation or Attention Silent Type, The Indecisive,


Yes Person

Order Perfection Naysayer, Silent Type, Whiner

For example, when the desire for action is so strong that the person ignores all other considerations, they can easily become a Bully who just charges ahead and tries to intimidate everyone in their path in an attempt to get things done.

They still have the same basic motivation—action—but it has gone too far and they are using a difficult behavior to achieve it.

When the people motivation becomes an unhealthy need for attention or approval, you probably don’t want to be near this person whose communication has become all about them. There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about wanting some attention or approval, but when it is taken to an extreme the person becomes difficult.

Some people use these difficult behaviors on as their primary strategy on a regular basis, and some only use them occasionally. Either way, you need to know how to be as effective as possible with each of them.

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You Can’t “Fix” Difficult People

They probably aren’t going to change, so don’t expect them to and you won’t be disappointed.

They’ve developed their difficult behavior strategies, over a period of many years, and it gives them positive rewards in some way. It’s not realistic to think that you are going to be able to change or “fix” them, no matter what you do.

Your objective should be to get the difficult person to stop doing their bad behavior with you. They may (and probably will) continue to do it with other people, but you should consider yourself successful if they stop doing it with you.

Even a reduction in the frequency or intensity of the bad behavior should be considered a success. They might even start to avoid you because you do not reward their strategy.

So, let’s define a successful outcome as any reduction in the pain that they cause for you—however it happens.

Here’s What To Do About Difficult People

Here’s a three-step process that you can use with any difficult behavior:

  1. Think: what is this person’s motivation for doing this? What do they want? What do they gain?
  2. Think: how can I redirect them to get what they want in a better way?
  3. If they continue to use the difficult behavior with you, make sure that they don’t get what they want from using the behavior when they do it with you.

One more thing – if you can’t figure out the reason for their behavior or how to redirect them, keep trying until you do – and enjoy the benefits of less conflict in your life!

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