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Difficult Situations and PeopleDifficult Situations and People

During my 30 years as a Learning & Development professional, one of the most common questions or requests I am asked is “how do I deal with difficult people?”

It’s a really good question, wouldn’t it be great if there was a technique or a model that you could use that would mean you could deal with any type of person that was put in front of you.

So how do you deal with difficult people?

  • Avoid common mistakes
  • Stay conscious
  • Re-evaluate your outcome
  • Separate the personalities
  • Understand their position
  • Develop empathy
  • Generate options
  • Confirm and act

Signs of difficult people 

  • Unwillingness to listen to others
  • Inability to consider any option other than their own
  • Willingness to use any tactic to get their own way
  • Ability to distort facts to suit their purposes
  • Avoidance of subjects that are contrary to what they believe (changing the subject)
  • Say hurtful things disguised as a joke
  • Don’t respect boundaries and seem to enjoy stepping all over one
  • Aren’t willing to consider your point of view or listen to your side of things
  • Leave you feeling bad
  • Provoke you into acting crazy or unbalanced, when your behaviour across the rest of your life is proof that you’re not
  • The excessively charming who is too good to be true and have an ulterior motive

Common mistakes

  1. Walking away and coming back later – a common tactic for people who would prefer to avoid the conflict. This simply stores up problems for later as the difficult person will take your action as an agreement to what they’ve said. It also means they have longer to think about it and entrench their opinion so that when you go back it merely inflames the situation more.
  2. Pushing on regardless – plough on with your opinion knowing that the other person isn’t listening. The idea being once I have got through all of my argument the other person will miraculously change their mind. The truth is they never do and you’re wasting your time.
  3. Expecting too much – people will rarely make a complete U-turn unless they can see they have been factually wrong (even then it’s unlikely), where this is the case these people aren’t difficult they are simply misinformed. Expecting people to change their beliefs because you tell them to is arrogance on your part.
  4. The Permanently Unreasonable Person (PUP) – recognising these people will save you a lot of time and energy as regardless of whatever technique you use they will never be reasonable with you. Recognise this and stop wasting time and energy.
Difficult people will not change their mind because of your argument, they will change their mind because of your behaviour. By behaving reasonably a most difficult people we’ll see they’re being unreasonable.

Stay conscious

“What? I am hardly likely to be unconscious when I’m dealing with somebody who is difficult am I!”

Stay conscious, you need to make sure you don’t go into defensive mode. Your brain is designed to protect you, and therefore when your brain perceives a threat it will usually adopt one of three strategies:

Difficult Situations and People 1

Fight – your brain perceives a threat and decides that the best option is for you to take the threat head-on and deal with it by attacking it.

Flight – your brain perceives a threat and decides that the best option is for you to get away from the threat as soon as we possibly can.

Freeze – your brain perceives a threat and decides that the best option is for you to not move, to stay very still and to make as little noise as possible.


Which one of these you choose is very much down to your personality, the situation you find yourself in and the other individual(s) involved. Your responses can become automatic, your decision-making speed increases so significantly that you do not consciously make decisions about how you will react. Of course, this is a valuable survival technique, and when there is a   physical threat or imminent danger this strategy serves you very well.  However, when you’re dealing with difficult people this strategy can simply inflame the situation. Where there is no physical threat, you need to be able to deploy your rational thinking in order to reach a successful conclusion.

Ask yourself the following questions:

What is the threat here?

What is it that I am doing that might make me seem unreasonable to the other person?

How are my actions currently helping or hindering the resolution of this problem?

Do I want to resolve the problem or am I happy to have an argument?

Where I am happy to have an argument, am I also happy to damage the relationship to the point where it may be on retrievable?

There are a number of other questions you might like to ask yourself, and with practice, you will be able to refine down to just a couple of questions that you can quickly ask before deciding which path to take.


InsecurityIt is always valuable to check back with yourself,  throughout any discussion to ensure that you are still sticking to the “stay conscious rule” and that you’re not allowing your primitive brain to take over and apply the laws of the jungle. This is far easier said than done, there are millions of years of evolution have developed this part of your brain in order to protect you and to help ensure your survival.

Unreasonableness is in the eye of the beholder, for you to perceive somebody as unreasonable is a personal choice. In many situations, the other person you are dealing with may also believe you to be unreasonable.

Much of what people say and do when being difficult is driven by their values and beliefs.

‘The customer in the restaurant complaining about the poor service they received while eating, the belief driving their behaviour may well be ‘value for money’ or ‘the fear is being taken advantage of.’ The waiter, who is on the receiving end of this customer’s behaviour, may well consider the individual to be unreasonable, as their beliefs are driven from ‘I am doing my best and we are very short staffed’ or ’It’s not my fault the kitchen have cocked-up  a number of orders.’

In this situation who is the one being unreasonable?

Probably most of you will say it’s the waiter’s People - Matrix Development articleduty as the customer has paid for a service which they didn’t get. Let’s look at this just for a minute, does the customer have the right to insult the waiter, question their capability and a variety of other insults that you commonly see?

When you boil it down it comes to the question of power, the customer, because they are paying for a service, believe that they have power and effectively the relationship is a master and servant one.

From the waiter’s point of view, the behaviour of the customer is a direct attack and will result in the main in the Fight, Flight or Freeze reaction.

People can start to behave in a reasonable way if they manage to calm/ sidestep the primitive part of their brain.  In most situations, there will only be one party who does this and if it’s you, you then need to work very hard to hopefully bring the other person to the side of rationality from the side of emotion.  Set out below are some suggestions on how you might do this, however, it is always worth bearing in mind the following:

You can’t put in what God left out!

Remember there are PUP’s (permanently unreasonable people) in this world!! 


Get in early 

The golden rule in dealing with difficult people is to let them know as early as possible when you believe you are going to be unable to Difficult Situations and People 2meet their expectations.

Let’s take the example of the restaurant, as you arrive at the restaurant the waiter informs you they are having some problems with the kitchen and that your food may take a little longer than you would expect, if you are then given the option to choose whether to stay or not and choose to stay there is less chance of kicking off as a result of your perception of poor service.

If something occurs while you’re in the restaurant, that means service quality will reduce explaining it at the earliest possible stage to your clients will usually defuse any potential problems later on.

When considering the unreasonableness of others it invariably comes down to a breakdown in communication, this,  of course, can be accidental or done unknowingly, in which case there is little you can do about it and the other person has some justification for their annoyance. In this situation, it is always better to get your apology in as soon as you know it’s occurred. Again, this isn’t something that necessarily comes easily to people and they may often try to hide the issue.


Re-evaluate your outcome

Thinking skull - time to re-evaluateWhen someone is being difficult, the first thing you are going to need to do is to re-evaluate what is a realistic outcome from your communication with them. It is highly unlikely, that you’re going to be able to get them to even admit there is another way of looking at the situation. Your outcome, therefore, may well be to simply get them to stop shouting, ignoring and/ or behaving in a way that is inappropriate.


What is the best I can realistically expect from this person in this situation?

Separate the personalities

When dealing with somebody who you perceive to be difficult, it is important that you separate their personality from the issue. Often their unreasonableness is driven by their beliefs. In a separating out the personality, you might be able to overlook their behaviour and solve their problems. You may also have to deal with their personality before you even look at any problems that they may be challenging you with.

What am I doing here, dealing with the individual’s behaviour or trying to solve their problem?

Understand their position

Talking headsIn this situation, you will often try to argue about the facts, which is often futile as the person will not consider any factual information because you are perceived as a threat.

Telling them that their behaviour is inappropriate tends to simply reinforce their position. So often the best course of action is to ask questions and simply listen to what the person says. One of the signs that somebody is being difficult during this phase is they will constantly require you to confirm what they’re saying is correct.


People are looking for you to confirm that they are right, once you start to do this you are going to weaken any future chance of gaining a successful resolution. In this situation, the best thing to do is to use statements like  “well you clearly believe that to be the case.”

Only once you have fully listened to everything the other person wants to say can you then start to try to make your point. Often with a difficult person, this will lead them to repeat what they have already told you or throwing in new information that they believe counters any thoughts you might have.  When this occurs, the first option is to point out to the individual that you listened to what they have to say and it would only be fair that they did the same with you. This, of course, might work however with a stubbornly difficult person they will simply dismiss this and continue down the path.

Until the person is willing to listen and not interrupt, to what you have to say there is little or no point in trying to progress. It is important that you try to remain calm and that you continue to point out to the individual that you have fully listened to what they had to say and will be willing to listen to anything they might like to add or any questions they might have about what you want to say once you have said it.

There are a number of people that are so difficult that they will never agree to this condition, in this situation you have to make a choice:

  • Give them what they want
  • Terminate the relationship
  • Get a third party to mediate

There will be situations, where the person listens to what you have to say but still refuses to consider any other options than their own. The following may be useful to help them to consider the options available:

  • What is the outcome they are looking for and is that outcome realistic
  • What is the outcome likely to be if you and they do not reach an agreement
  • How important is it to them that they get what they want compared to the potential damage to the relationship you have

In the heat of an argument, people will often cut their nose off to spite their face. So often getting the person to focus on the end goal rather than on the immediate issue can help them to understand a better way of dealing with the situation.

How well do I understand what the other person is feeling and what they see the problem to be? 

Develop empathy

EmpathyThe major weakness of difficult people or of people being unreasonable is their lack of empathy for the other person’s situation. In the majority of cases demonstrating empathy for somebody will result in them being willing to listen to your position. Often difficult people are being unreasonable don’t understand the position that they’re in. When dealing with a difficult person demonstrating empathy is the first tool in your toolbox. This requires you to listen and to ask questions.


There are three key principles that you should consider when demonstrating empathy:

  • Acceptance, except that the person is who they are and they are allowed to think the way that they do. In their world, their view is completely valid and reasonable. If this is the case then in effect no one is unreasonable, it’s just their reason is different from yours. No one is incorrect, everyone has a reason for behaving in the way that they do. Accept that you are going to have to really practice this and make sure you are conscious of it all the time you are talking to the individual.
  • Understanding, having accepted that the individual believes that they are being reasonable the next challenge is to understand why they believe they were being reasonable. As already stated above you need to listen to what it is they’re telling you.
  • Involvement, whilst you may not agree with what they think or what they believe if you want to demonstrate empathy for them you have to be involved in their journey. You can, of course, choose not to, but where you do so you are not demonstrating empathy you have chosen instead they are not somebody you want to be involved with.

How well have I accepted this is what the person believes, I understand why they believe it and I am involved in trying to find solutions.

Generate options

Difficult Situations and People 3If you haven’t understood the other person’s position or develop empathy for them, then generating options will not work as well, as the other person this still operating in the emotional part of their brain. This isn’t to say it won’t work however invariably it will mean you giving more ground than you might either want to or need to in order to get a resolution. Spending time understanding the other person’s position and developing empathy for them will produce a far better outcome and strengthen the relationship.

People always feel better if they have a choice, however, too many choices and the person will start to believe there is a bigger problem than there really is. The magic rule of three it’s always a good one to apply when generating options.

Offering an individual choice it can play both to the national and the emotional brains. Very few people like being told what to do, they would much prefer to choose for themselves. Of course there are people who are greedy and if given choices would say I want them all, in these situations you are not dealing with somebody who is temporarily unreasonable but someone who is permanently unreasonable (potentially you are moving into the realms of mental disorders, and this is something we can’t really deal with in this paper). However, the vast majority of people all of whom can be unreasonable will behave in a reasonable way if they’re given the choice to.

What would be acceptable to the other person? 

Confirm an act 

The final part of the process is to confirm what you have agreed to do and then make sure you do it. It is often also powerful at this point to review your understanding, demonstrating to the other person that you have fully listened to their opinions and taken them into account before taking any action.

There will, of course, be times when the actions you are able to take and not perceived as satisfactory to the individual, in this situation it is always worth acknowledging this, as it again shows empathy for their position.

The final point to make is that there will always be people that you will not be able to deal with regardless of how well you:

    • Avoid common mistakes
    • Stay conscious
    • Re-evaluate your outcome
    • Separate the personalities
    • Understand their position
    • Develop empathy
    • Generate options
    • Confirm and act

Barry Richardson is an L&D Consultant who has worked in a wide variety of organisations and with a wide variety of people and who can still get it wrong!

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