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The art of managing difficult people

Ray Hull
Ray Hull

I am asked fairly frequently about how to effectively deal with difficult people in the workplace.

That is a very difficult area because there exist so many varieties of difficult people who possess vastly different personalities, and the circumstances in which they interact with others vary greatly.

If every difficult person had the same innate personality, and all worked within the same environment, then the complexities in dealing with them would be fewer.

But, in light of the fact that everyone possesses differences in personality characteristics, and most everyone works in different environments under different circumstances – and with bosses who use varying styles of management – here are seven tips for managing difficult people.

Some of these are taken from other sources including “Managing Difficult People” (Pincus, 2004); Psychology (P. Ni); Communication Success/2013; (K. Kruse); and others:

▪ The bully

Bullies tend to think highly of themselves.

They use the silent treatment and other antisocial tactics such as bursts of anger to get their way. It is best to not get drawn into the battle.

If you must work closely with that person, don’t try to change the bully by yourself. Check with your boss – or Human Resources if that office is available to you – to ask how you might handle the situation.

▪ Keep your cool

The first rule in managing difficult people is to maintain your composure – the less reactive you are, the more you can use your better judgment to handle the situation.

Hold your breath and count to 10. After that, you may figure out a way to handle the situation.

▪ Don’t get dragged down

Make sure that you are aware who the “Downers” are in the workplace, and make sure they don’t suck you into their world of negativity. Always keep your guard up.

▪ Put a sign on your door

If you don’t have a door, put one on your desk that says, “Pessimists Not Welcome! Thou Shalt Keep Your Attitude to Thy Self!”

▪ Pick your battles

Remember, many difficult people also have positive qualities. We just need to know how to bring them out.

Being nice to them while ignoring their outbursts is just one method, and then saying something like, “Remember during our last meeting when you came up with that great idea about … ” can defuse the negative comments that were about to be made.

▪ Ignore negative comments directed at you

Negative comments directed at you are often intended to dominate you.

Typically they are quick to point out that there is something not right with you or how you do things. Their focus is on “what’s wrong,” rather than how to solve the problem.

A simple and powerful way to change this is to put the spotlight back onto the difficult person. The easiest way is to ask them questions, such as, “Then tell me, what can be done to make this situation better? Can you think of one thing that can be done? You often have good ideas, so I would like to hear them.”

▪ Use appropriate humor

You can disarm unreasonable and difficult behavior by using some humor.

It shows your detachment, and it allows you to avoid being reactive to the behavior.

Ray H. Hull is a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Wichita State University. Contact him at

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