Dealing with Difficult People

Dealing with Difficult People

By David Lim


You may know this person: they are demanding, want things done yesterday, and on occasion can be totally uncooperative and sneaky. Often, they take the credit for your work. This could be your boss, your peer or just another colleague with whom you work.

Many times off and on the mountain, I have asked myself what I should do with such people. Dealing with difficult people is a perennial work-life challenge. If you Google the phrase, more than 10 million references pop up. One time on a mountain, one of my team-mates with whom I had not been on a long trip together, kept constantly ‘stirring the pot’ – making fun of everyone and anything to the point that he became an annoyance rather than an asset. If you climbed too fast, he would keep referring to you as a ‘show off’. Climb too slow, and he would make fun of you as the ‘slow coach’.

People, in general, are not meant to spend a long time together under stress; so in that vein, people who moan about ‘difficult people’ at the workplace have it good, compared to those on a long sailing or climbing trip. In my limited experience, I have found these methods in dealing with people who irritate the heck out of me successful:

a) Clarity of Team Goals: If you have to work with this person, having clarity, or compelling the key stakeholder to have clarity about the goal is essential. Methods, pathways and approaches may change, but so long as there is clarity about the goal, you can adjust to differences in tactics and techniques in getting there together. However, if the goal is quite unclear,  it’s difficult to accept a personality and attitude that rubs against your own because you don’t know if the effort to adapt to this person actually helps the team reach the goal

b) Work on Yourself First: We see our world though our own unique filters, biases and contextual cues. Very often, a ‘difficult’ person might be because he/she might have come from another organization where he or she may have been conditioned to behave very differently from us in order to achieve a goal we both want. In discussion, use “I”, rather than “you”. So, for example, say “ I am having problems delivering this task” or “ I am frustrated that we are unable to agree on this” – rather than “ You are always disagreeing”. It is worthwhile to take a step back to do a personal audit: are you taking yourself too seriously?  Is this person’s behaviour truly difficult, or just your own perception?  Consider the context in which this person works. For example, getting grumpy replies from Finance staff might be linked to your requests coming in at the busiest time of the month for their department.

c) Work on the Issues, not the Person: A few days ago, my wife used my technique when frustrated with a difficult person on a help line. She said,” I am not angry at you, I am angry at the situation” – knowing full well that sometimes, people do not deserve to bear our anger personally. In addition, sticking with the issues prevents people from becoming defensive

d) Discuss your differences in private: it’s infinitely better to discuss it privately where neither of you might be tempted to pander to an audience to win support, score ego points, or disclose something rather private

d) Have courage: When all the counseling, coaching and other means fail to make a ‘difficult’ person behave in a less toxic fashion, AND that behaviour is against the team’s efforts in a reaching the goal, have courage to fire them. That’s right, few people who write about dealing with difficult people, ever recommend  that bosses should simply fire people who are truly becoming intolerable. Understand that some perfectly competent people may lack “self-regulation” – a key component to getting along with others. Classic tell-tales signs at the recruitment stage could be an absence of testimonials,  or a high turnover in jobs in recent years by that individual. As I have said before, if all else fails to work, either you leave, they leave or you fire them – for the greater good

e) Last but not least, don’t take things too personally: Often a thoughtless, unkind throwaway line from a ‘difficult’ person has been long forgotten – at least by them. But you still harbour ill-will for hours , days or weeks. Ultimately, ask yourself what really matters, and if these ‘hurts’ are simply self-inflicted

In the 1970s, an ace American climbing team headed by two famous climbers, the Whittaker brothers, Jim and Lou, went to attempt to climb K2 in Pakistan. As if the fearsome mountain challenge was not enough, the group broke up into factions that hated each other to the point that one member wrote in his diary that Lou “should end up with an ice ax in the back of his head or a bullet between his eyes”

Incidentally, my team member who was proving to be  difficult to deal with in the end was merely behaving in a very ‘British’ fashion – where he was accustomed to make fun of many things. I soon realized that I should relax a bit more, and respond in a similar fashion. I gave him some of his own medicine – which he lapped up. Ultimately, it was good and successful expedition in which differences and difficulties came down to differing cultural habits and the ability to adjust  and adapt yourself to one another. But yes, there were times when I was tempted to use my ice-axe….


DAVID LIM IS A LEADERSHIP AND NEGOTIATION COACH. Learn  more from his blog http://theasiannegotiator., OR contact him