How To Handle Difficult People

“You never get ahead of anyone as long as you try to get even with him.”
Lou Holtz

Difficult people are a fact of life. No matter how much you try to avoid them or change them, you’re still going to be stuck with a few of them. You’re going to have difficult people at work… amongst your coworkers and customers… and you’re going to have difficult people at home… amongst your friends and family members. So you had better learn how to deal with them. I’ve found the following techniques work very well.

=> 1. Keep on shining.

In other words, don’t stoop down to the level of the difficult person. Don’t try to match wits or barbs or fight fire with fire. You’ll probably fail.

Instead, think of the difficult person… or think of the problem he presents… as your chance to do your very best. Be like the judge who was campaigning for re-election and was running on his record of integrity. He was an honorable gentleman, but his opponent was conducting a vicious, mud-slinging, unfair campaign against him.

At a news conference, a reporter stood and asked the judge, “Your Honor, do you know what your opponent is saying about you? Are you aware of the criticism he is leveling at you? Would you care to comment?”

The judge looked at his campaign counselors and the chairman of his committee. Then he looked at his audience and calmly replied: “Well, when I was a boy I had a dog. And every time the moon was full, the old hound dog would howl and bark at the things he saw in the bright face of the moon. We never did sleep very well those nights. He would bark and howl at the moon all night long.” With that he concluded his remarks.

“That’s beside the point,” his campaign chairman impatiently said. “You haven’t answered your critics!” The judge explained, “I just did! When the dog barked at the moon, the moon kept right on shining! I don’t intend to say anything back to my critics. I’m going to keep right on shining — quietly and calmly, like the moon!”

And you can and you should do the same thing. When the difficult person is beating you down, just keep on shining. Don’t give him or her the satisfaction of seeing you get down.

=> 2. Demonstrate respect for the person, not the behavior.

You may have a difficult boss. You may even dislike him. But you can still show respect for the position he holds and the responsibility he shoulders.

When it comes to a coworker who has an odor problem, for example, focus on the behavior. You wouldn’t — I hope — tell the person, “You stink. What the heck is the matter with you?” And you wouldn’t confront the person in front of anyone else. That would be very disrespectful.

No, if you were smart, you would pull the coworker aside to a private setting. You would give feedback focused on the behavior, something like, “I noticed when you were in the office yesterday you had a B.O. problem. And I noticed it again today. Just thought you would want to know.”

When you demonstrate respect, the difficult person becomes easier to deal with. And you can always find some way to show your respect.

=> 3. Empathize with her feelings.

This may be a difficult thing to do — especially if the other person has really irritated or hurt you. You feel like getting back at the other person rather than empathize with her. As one person said, “When someone hurts me, I know that forgiveness is cheaper than a lawsuit, but not nearly as gratifying.”

If a difficult person is venting her anger, let her vent. If you try to interrupt her before she finishes, she’ll get angrier and go on longer.

And even though you won’t feel like doing it, you’ve got to empathize with her feelings whenever possible. You might say something like, “I can see how you would be really frustrated. In situations where I felt I was cut off and my opinions didn’t matter, I felt frustrated too.”

If the difficult person starts to dump on you, you don’t have to sit there… passively… and get abused. Take control. Ask open-ended questions. As the difficult person answers your questions, she moves into her more logical, less emotional left brain. And if she slips back to her anger, just ask some more questions until she cools down and moves into the problem-solving mode.

=> 4. Agree with something.

If you look closely enough, you can usually find something in the other person’s comments or perceptions to agree with. There may be a grain of truth to his observations, even if he has misinterpreted some part of the situation. Look for those areas.

Then mention those areas. Mention something in his point of view that you think is quite valid. Acknowledge the fact that you have the same perception on a particular issue.

When you empathize with some of the difficult person’s feelings he becomes less hostile. And when you agree with something in his point of view, he becomes much more cooperative.

=> 5. Apply humor instead of rebuttals.

When difficult people are saying nasty things, it’s easy to get hooked. In fact, it’s almost natural to say, in rebuttal, “You make me feel so…”

No! They DON’T make you feel anything. You chose to get angry, depressed, or whatever. But you could have chosen to brush it off. So don’t make the other person responsible for your feelings. That will simply make her more difficult to deal with.

Instead, say something like, “When you say (such and such)… or when you do (this and that)… I feel (upset, put down, unimportant, etc.).” That way you are taking responsibility for your feelings. You’re owning what’s going on inside you… instead of blaming the other person for your feelings.

You could also deflect some of his negative comments with a bit of humor. That’s what Abraham Lincoln often did.

One time, during a bitter winter day, several lawyers were gathered around the pot-bellied stove in the general store. Lincoln said, “It’s colder than Hades outside.”

One lawyer quipped, “I knew you were a well-traveled gent, but I didn’t know you had been there. What’s it like, Abe?”

Lincoln calmly replied, “It’s just like here. The lawyers are the closest ones to the fire.”

You can also apply a little good-natured humor when you’re around a difficult person. Just make sure your tone of voice and facial expressions are friendly. And make sure the other person knows you’re gently teasing, and not putting him/her down.

Rich DeVoss talked about that in his book, “Selling America.” In one of his presentations to a high school audience, he said he had noticed that when you’re in high school, you’re a big shot if you smoke. And when you get to be his age, you’re a big shot if you can quit.

After his presentation, a young girl approached DeVoss and said indignantly, “Ill let you know I smoke.” DeVoss replied, “You’re kidding.”

She said, “I sure do,” to which DeVoss said, “I don’t believe you.” Even more firmly she announced, “Yes, I smoke!!”

But DeVoss gently teased her and said, “No, you don’t smoke, honey. The cigarette smokes. You’re just the sucker.”

He used humor rather than a long, drawn-out logical argument to make his point and deflect her indignation. And you could do the same thing when you’re being challenged by a difficult person.

=> 6. Add your suggestions.

After you’ve done all of the above, the difficult person almost always calms down and opens up. So ask the other person if he would be willing to hear some additional information. This is where you begin to share your side of the story.

But remember this. You’re not saying that your side of the story is right and theirs is wrong. You are simply filling in the gaps. So you may say something like this, “Would it be all right if I shared some other facts that may give us a more complete picture of the situation?”

After the other person has heard you out, ask him what he thinks will make the situation better. Very often the difficult person is so consumed with the expression of anger that he has not really thought about what can be done to improve the situation. Asking the other person for improvement suggestions can move him toward a problem-solving mode.

Then add your suggestions. In a work situation, for example, most bosses appreciate it when staff members come to her with potential solutions instead of more problems.

And if this suggestion phase is not working, if it’s apparent the discussion is going nowhere fast, a cooling-off thinking break can be helpful. So recommend a thinking break. Say something like, “Why don’t we both give this some thought and get back together tomorrow, maybe around 1:00, to see if we can work this out? Does that time work for you?”

Action:  Look at the 6 tips for dealing with difficult people. Select the two strategies that you seldom use — but need to use — and consciously look for opportunities to use those two strategies.