Difficult People: How to Spot Them and Stop Them

“Martyrdom has always been a proof of the intensity, never of the correctness of a belief.”
Arthur Schnitzler, Austrian author


Dealing with Difficult PeopleDifficult people use a variety of methods. The most noticeable ones are the mean, nasty, and in-your-face types who try to intimidate and use you.

But some difficult people are “nice,” at least on the surface, for a short while. For example, when I was delivering a seminar on “Communication Between The Sexes,” I asked my students to list some of the most flattering pick-up lines they had heard.

They gave me such lines as:
“Are you a parking ticket? Because you’ve got FINE written all over you.”
“It’s a good thing I have a library card. Because I am totally checking you out.”
“I was so enchanted by your beauty that I ran into that wall over there. So I’m going to need your name and number for insurance purposes.”
“If I received a nickel for every time I saw someone as beautiful as you, I’d have five cents.”

Even though the Charmer may seem “nice” initially, he is still a difficult person … because he is trying to manipulate you, just like all the other types of difficult people. The only difference is the Charmer uses flattery as his or her weapon.

So how should you respond? Let me give you a few tips.

(And if you really want to dramatically improve your skills in this area, pick up a copy of my recorded program: “Difficult People: How To Spot Them And Stop Them.”)

1. Understand the Charmer’s weapon

The Charmer goes beyond sincere praise and recognition to higher levels of insincere flattery. He butters you up by describing you in such glowing terms that you feel pressured to live up to those expectations.

You need to remember … the Charmer is always trying to get something from you, but he doesn’t come out and say it in a clear and straightforward way. Instead, he tries to manipulate you with flattery first. For example, he may come to you, saying something like, “You are my last hope. Nobody else will help me. I came to you because I heard you really care about people. You listen to them and help them.” And THEN the Charmer tells you what he wants from you.

Of course, if you’re like most people, you’ll feel some pressure to do what the Charmer wants you to do. After all, not doing so would imply that you don’t care, don’t listen, and don’t help. That’s the weapon of the Charmer.

2. Neutralize the Charmer’s weapon.

There are several things you can do to respond to a Charmer more effectively. Just choose the method that fits you the best.

Timeout: Give yourself a timeout to think about the Charmer’s request before you say “yes” or “no.”

Agree and amend: Agree with the Charmer’s flattery by saying, “Yes, I do care about people and I do listen pretty well.” But then add an amendment to the Charmer’s flattery by adding, “But you know, sometimes I have trouble doing all that.” By responding in this way, you disarm the Charmer and you take the pressure off of yourself to be as perfect as the flattering images the Charmer was trying to use on you.

Ask for an explanation: The Charmer won’t be expecting your questions and so chances are your questions might entice the Charmer to be more open and honest with you. Ask something like, “Are you buttering me up? … Do you believe that flattery will get you everywhere? … or … What happens if I don’t give you what you want? Will you take back your flattery?”

As you deal with this kind of difficult person, keep your goal in mind. It’s not to hurt or annihilate or humiliate the Charmer. Your goal is simply to encourage honest communication.

Another type of difficult person is the Martyr. Unlike the Charmer who tries to stir up some temporary good feelings in you through the use of flattery, the Martyr tries to stir up some temporary guilt feelings IN you to USE you.

3. Understand the Martyr’s weapon

It’s guilt induction. The Martyr specializes in suffering, hoping you will feel sorry for him or her. For example, the martyr might say, “You go ahead and have fun … Don’t worry about me … I’ll be okay … I’m glad it happened to me and not to you … or How could you do this after all I’ve done for you?”

The Martyr has a knack for triggering you into feeling guilty. Their whole point, of course, is the fact that you won’t have to feel guilty anymore if you just do what he or she asks or implies.

Well, there are very few things in life you should do out of guilt. In most cases you need a much better reason than that. So go ahead and…

4. Neutralize the Martyr’s weapon

Again, you have several ways to respond to the Martyr so you don’t get hooked.

Acknowledge, period: Let the Martyr know that you are aware of her suffering. Acknowledge the pain but don’t try to fix it. Step back and let her take care of her own suffering.

Use your feelings: Use your feelings as a guide. If you are feeling some guilt, ask yourself if you did indeed do something you should feel guilty about. If the answer is “yes,” then do something to make amends. If your answer is “no,” ask yourself what you would be doing or saying right now if you didn’t feel any guilt. Go ahead and do or say that.

Question motives: One of the best ways to respond to any type of manipulator is to clarify their motives. If you do that effectively, the manipulation typically stops. In the case of the Martyr, say something like, “I’m feeling guilty and uncomfortable right now! Is that what you were hoping would happen?”

Difficult people are a part of your life, but they don’t have to rule your life.

That’s why I liked Warren Buffet’s, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, comment. He advises, “First, state clearly that you don’t know all the facts. Then promptly state the facts you do know. One’s objective should be to get it right, get it quick, get it out, and get it over. You see, your problem won’t improve with age.”


Which response to the Charmer do you like the best? How can you use that response at work or at home?