Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Whether a person is actually difficult or not can be a matter of perspective. Regardless, when you find a person is difficult for you to deal with, then it is time to pay attention to your own responses to ensure you are not derailed from your own priorities. Difficult people can easily consume our focus and our energy simply because we let them.
Many of my clients are executives on the rise, and can feel at the mercy of politics in their organization. They see one or more of their coworkers trying to take away their power or blocking access to power they are actively seeking. They cannot see a way to win at a game that can feel incredibly unnatural and vicious.
One of the things I explore with these clients is the types of office politics: the good kind and the bad kind. Good, healthy office politics benefit the majority of individuals and the organization as a whole. It is an act of service for the greater good by an individual with the power to affect change. On the other hand, bad, or destructive, office politics happen when an individual wields their influence purely for their own benefit, at the expense of others, and without concern for the organization.
The latter situation is unfortunately often the case. Those who are leveraging their influence without concern for anyone else’s benefit are one type of difficult personality. They can rapidly create a toxic workplace, and leaders must deal with them quickly and firmly to restore a healthy culture. But bad politics only scratch the surface of the sort of difficult personalities we run across in our careers.
As tempting as it can be, it is rare for us to effectively change another person’s behavior through our words or actions. Any effort to do so is really manipulation, and the changes produced are likely to be temporary at best. What we really control are our own thoughts and actions in the moment. As a result, we can alter the outcome of a particular interaction by how we show up for it. This becomes easier and more empowering when you have tools for change at the ready. Here are some of my favorites.
Recognize there will always be difficult people.
Let’s just get this one out of the way. Difficult people are everywhere, and one person might be very difficult for you to get along with, and not the least for someone else. You do not need to go find other people to validate how awful their behavior actually is. There is also no need to look for blame anywhere either.
When you are faced with a difficult person you will now have tools to deal with it, and choices to make on how to navigate the situation without letting it derail you or your goals. Bring on the difficult people!
Check to see if you are contributing to the difficulty.
Now, I know some of us are quick to blame ourselves – or blame the victim. That’s not what this is about. Instead, do a quick scan of your own behavior, and see if you have areas for improvement. Learn from the difficulty. Be better for it. For instance, how is your communication? Could it be clearer? Are you overly impatient? Critical? Is your confidence low, and you are taking things waaaaay too personally? Perhaps you are stressed or tired and overreacted. Maybe you are trying to exert more control over them than is warranted.
This is a good time to check in with a friend – a trusted, safe and neutral person – to see what their perspective is when you may be emotional and lack distance.
Be respectful and calm.
They might be acting loudly, rudely and irrationally. That doesn’t mean you need to give as good as you get. There is never a better time to take the high road than when you are dealing with a difficult individual. This is not a passive aggressive response. It means standing your ground with absolute certainty.
There are two benefits in this response: First, when you remain calm, you make better decisions. Second, if you are concerned about being judged as a result of their behavior, it will be clear to anyone involved that you are the more mature and confident person. When you respect others and keep your composure, the one who benefits is you.
Build a support team, and use it!
Difficult people can feel like a huge threat to our career path, goals and safety. When you are in an organization with its own culture and biases, it can be very helpful to seek out others – again – neutral and trusted – who can explore your approach and options from a fresh vantage point. Keep this circle small – no more than four people – and be extremely careful to avoid gossip about the difficult person. You are looking for solutions, not trying to grab back your sense of power by diminishing the difficult person.
Set your limits and stick to them.
Another word for limits is boundaries. Commonly boundaries are misunderstood as something we don’t allow another person to cross (that proverbially line in the sand). A better way to think about them is as a line we don’t cross. In other words, if the difficult person does something we have predetermined is unacceptable to us, we know how we will respond.
We are creating meaningful consequences for their behavior. For example, if someone is repeatedly disrespectful to us in meetings, we determine that the next time it happens we will raise our hand (and our voice if necessary) and say, “I am speaking now.” The key to setting these boundaries is: if we don’t actually hold firm to them, we undermine our trust in ourselves, and no one else will believe we will hold our ground either.
Choose your battles.
Dealing with a difficult person can make us hyper-vigilant and, candidly, impossibly critical. This is a fear response. We become obsessively focused on where offenses are happening, and, an outsider might think we were just a touch paranoid. So, give it a rest. Instead, look at the pattern of behavior, and decide in advance, where is it worth a response, and where is it less energy to simply shrug and overlook.
Trust your inner wisdom.
Certainly, we have each let our negative imaginings run away with us at some point. However, when somethings feels “off”, without an emotional response of fear or outrage attached, then pay attention. Your inner wisdom is never overly dramatic. It just knows without you necessarily knowing how it knows. Pay attention to body language, facial expressions, and patterns of behavior. If it quacks like a duck, then it is most likely a duck. Therefore, treat it like a duck.
Have courageous conversations.
Many of us, especially women, have been taught to keep the peace at all costs. We are careful to be “nice” so we aren’t seen as bossy or that other “b” word. There’s also a lot of ground between keeping off the radar and creating discord or an uproar. That’s actually not courageous either. It’s reactive and disruptive. What is courageous is to name a disrespectful or obstructionist behavior, state its impact clearly and concisely, then suggest a solution and invite discussion.
Create a safe space.
Separate yourself emotionally from the situation. (Another term for this is detachment.) When you internalize the craziness around you, it turns you crazy too. Becoming a witness to the situation (less of a participant) will prevent you from getting sucked into the drama and negativity. Stop trying to think you’ll change their behavior, and simply distance yourself. If you must interact with them, do so from a neutral perspective, not an emotional one, and focus solely on the present situation.
It can be too easy to assume we know what a difficult person is thinking. We presume to understand their motivations. However, many times our assumptions are part of the problem. Before you write the other person off as impossible to deal with, at least try to get a clearer picture of their perspective in a non-confrontational way.
Many seemingly difficult people are actually struggling with low self-esteem, and longing to feel more important, seen, heard and understood. They are lacking the tools to channel these natural desires into healthy behaviors. While you can’t fix them, you can better assess how to cooperate in a way that benefits both of you. Questions that focus on you and how you are feeling, are open-ended, and are clear of criticism are extremely likely to provide powerful clarity.
Examples of these sort of questions include:
I feel like you tend to cut me off in our team meetings. Are you aware of this, and can you share how I could work with you to change it?
I notice you are frequently late for our meetings. What do you suggest we can do to be more respectful of each other’s time?
I am sensing there is a friction between us. I would like to improve our communications and build more trust. Is there anything we need to talk about? How can we create opportunities for collaboration?
Forgive, but don’t forget.
Forgiving unacceptable actions is healthy; releasing us from a debilitating weight of emotional baggage. It is not excusing or condoning bad behavior, nor is it forgetting what happened. The old saying fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice and shame on me is pertinent here. Forgiving what happened frees up your energy and focus for more important things. Remembering sets a boundary for future situations.
Focus on solutions.
When you concentrate all of your energy towards finding a solution, it creates a completely different state of mind than if you’re focusing on problems. Problems are negative – solutions are positive! Fixate your actions on improving yourself and your circumstances, and by doing so, you become the solution. When you know that you’re in control, it gives you a sense of freedom that results in more positive emotions and a huge reduction in stress. You realize that you have the power over how you experience the difficult people in your life.
Be kind to yourself.
It’s not uncommon to take on someone else’s negativity and call it your own. One way to deal with that negativity is to become more aware how you are talking to yourself. Negative self-talk drains our energy, obstructs our focus, and makes us highly susceptible to other people’s negativity. Many people who deal with depression recognize negative self-talk as the beginning of a downward spiral.
Talking positively to oneself is one way to disarm internal negativity. This is not the same thing as stuffing feelings or white-washing a harmful or risky situation. Keep in mind that the human imagination is extremely powerful, and the horrors we can dream up and beat ourselves up with are no more powerful than the glorious future we envision and motivate ourselves with. The choice is yours.
Difficult people and ugly office politics are everywhere. But that doesn’t mean they have to block you as you grow your influence and impact. In fact, when you learn how to effectively work with difficult individuals, you are winning at office politics – the good kind! When you shift your own thoughts and behaviors you can diffuse the worst of it, and stay in solution.
For more assistance on growing your influence, check out my ebook, the Art of Persuasion.