Dealing with Difficult People

By Laura Benjamin

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, wrote, "I don't think you have time to waste on someone who does not respond to you with kindness and respect. You don't want to spend your time around people who make you hold your breath." While her comment in the book refers to someone who offers constructive criticism of a writer's first draft, her philosophy applies just as clearly to dealing with people in general.

You don't need to go through life "holding your breath" around people who are considered "difficult." Dealing with them has more to do with setting boundaries and limitations for ourselves regarding what we will or will not tolerate from others. The best we can do is understand what motivates them, try to improve the effectiveness of our actions, maintain our integrity and self-esteem, and know when to let go!

Difficult people defined
Just for giggles, poll the people around you and ask what is their definition of a difficult person. Most likely you'll get just as many versions as the number of people you survey. But if you looked for the common themes, you'd find it's typically someone whose troublesome behavior…

  • Affects most people, not just the overly sensitive, weak, or incompetent. In other words, 99% of the people you work with also think this person is a pain in the posterior!
  • Is set at a lower threshold and is more easily triggered. They're unpredictable, and seem to "go off" over the smallest little things.
  • Is frequent and habitual. They exhibit this type of behavior most of the time.

Human behavior experts like Dr. Robert M. Bramson, in Coping with Difficult People, has categorized them into 6 types and recommends the following strategies for working more effectively with them: (Click on the personality type to read the coping strategies)

  1. Hostile/Aggressive
  2. The Complainer
  3. Silent/Unresponsive
  4. Super-Agreeable
  5. Negativist
  6. Know It All Expert

Deal with it or know when to let go?
Typically, the longer we ignore a situation, the worse it gets—rarely does it "give up" and go away! Clearly it's to our advantage to develop and practice effective conflict management practices that facilitate discussion yet do not dissolve into highly charged emotional exchanges. Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, is a soft-spoken, yet provocative leader who is known to say things in a civil way that others may not have the courage to say.

He said, "We work in an organization where one usually tries to avoid conflict, but when the issues are that important and also that persistent, one needs to find a way of getting them debated, and move forward in a rational and perhaps more organized manner."

So, how should we proceed? Dr. Bramson suggests:

  • Assess the situation. Are they really a difficult person or just having a bad day? If you find yourself reacting negatively to practically everything they do, it may be a response to something quite specific about them, like their hair, perfume, or mannerisms that remind you of your third grade teacher.
  • Stop wishing they were different. We assume everyone must think and behave like we do, and if they don't, we assume they're doing it on purpose to irritate us!
  • Distance yourself from them by taking a detached, impersonal view. The more you can see them as separate from yourself, the less likely you'll be to interpret their behavior as being a personal attack against you. It's just the way they are; you had nothing to do with it!
  • Interrupt the action. Recognize that a difficult person is adept at bringing out the worst in everyone! You, however, are free to change the nature of the interaction versus getting caught up in a cycle of frustrated expectations. You are not a victim! Do the opposite of what they expect.
  • Time your response carefully. Choose a time when the difficult person is not under excessive stress or obligation. People are less resilient and flexible when under stress.

In the final analysis, consider whether or not you have the time and energy to "engage." Perhaps you recognize more damage could be done to your own mental health and self-esteem by participating in any interaction with this person. Your best option may be to withdraw from the relationship, and yes, that could mean you consider quitting your job, divorcing your spouse, eating lunch with a different crowd, or moving far away from your grown children.

We get to choose whom we allow to take up space in our lives, and as Anne Lamott also so eloquently said, "You can't fill up when you're holding your breath." You can't fill up with life, love, and laughter when important parts of you are simultaneously being drained away!

Also see:

  • How can a coach help a working mom like me?
  • Negiotating a larger salary package Laura Benjamin is the owner of "Laura Benjamin International," an international speaking, training, coaching and consulting firm specializing in workplace relations and professional development issues. Her programs include, "Got STRESS? Balancing Work & Life," "Call of the Wild…Dealing with Difficult People," and "A Manager's Guide to Developing Your People." Contact her by phone: 719-266-8088, email:, or visit her website at