Handling difficult people

Difficult people are everywhere – and although I haven’t met every one of them, there are some practical steps you can take to handle most types.


Every workplace seems to have issues with managing difficult people – whether it is staff or customers. No matter how many programs we have on dealing with conflict, mediating disputes or handling difficult people, there is still a big demand out there for tips on how to manage people that make life at work harder.


It would be great to have some answers that cover all different situations – but there are so many types of difficult person.


I would welcome some more examples of difficult people, but will get the ball rolling with five common types:



The complainer

Do you work with someone who constantly complains – about other people, tasks, time, money, work allocation, hours, their boss and/or you?


TIP #1Take the person aside and give them some simple specific feedback.


Use a basic approach like: “When you complain about our meetings, our projects, our service, like in today’s team meeting… I feel disappointed and frustrated. In the future would you please help us make improvements by making constructive suggestions about what we can do better or differently, rather than just complaining.”


The know-all

But what happens when you take aside a person that argues back and justifies their actions or disagrees with you – like a “know-all”. You might be thinking it’s pointless even trying to give this person feedback.


TIP #2 – You still have to take them aside, but now you must stay in control when they interrupt, disagree, and argue back. Use their name and say something like “hold on, please let me finish”. You can add emphasis non-verbally by holding your hand up (slightly) in a “stop” position. And repeat this saying their name – don’t let them talk over you, but stay calm.


The joker

Years ago when I worked for the Federal Government, there was a guy in one of the employment offices I visited that always joked, about everything and everyone.

At first I thought it was funny – and he certainly made other people laugh. But it was also tedious, repetitive and frustrating when you needed to get work done because he wouldn’t listen and distracted others… and he would easily make a joke out of feedback – no matter how professional you could be in giving it.


TIP #3Stop rewarding the behaviour. When people laugh at the jokes, they reward behaviour – and it tends to happen again and again. So you have to find ways to ignore the behaviour and become very task oriented. And reward the actions and work you do want, so thank them for good work.


The aggressive person

What about a customer who is aggressive – you can’t ignore their behaviour and you can’t really take them aside and give them feedback. And often empathy can make them angrier.


TIP #4Don’t take it personally. That means staying calm, because you may not be able to solve everyone’s complaints. I do recommend making an apology… and sometimes I have to argue with my client organisations as they feel saying sorry admits liability. I disagree, and will talk about the psychology of saying sorry in my next blog.


The dodger

One of the trickiest difficult types is the person who doesn’t keep promises, especially regarding delivering work on time. They will always have excuses and you end up chasing them. Sigh!


TIP #5Push for commitment and make it specific, not vague. So instead of saying you want something by the end of the week, ask for it by Friday at 10am so you can both meet to discuss it at 10.30am. Keep persisting with agreed deadlines, confirm by email. Then at least you can start managing performance and counseling if these specific commitments are not met.


I would like to produce some new videos on difficult people, so please offer any suggestions of difficult people you have encountered.


Watch the video Handling Difficult People.



Eve Ash is founder of Seven Dimensions (www.7dimensions.com.au) and co-producer with Peter Quarry of the multi-award winning Ash.Quarry video Handling Difficult People in the People Skill series.


For more People Problems blogs, click here.



Jane Garrett writes: I have a difficult person type – The Sulker. This person thinks they can do their job better than you. They act in a passive aggressive manner when you suggest something and then deliberately don’t do it. If you approach them about their behaviour they can become aggressive and then sulk. Action: No idea. Any suggestions, and is this a type or a combination of a type?

Eve responds: The sulker! Invite their involvement. Ask questions about how they would like to do a task or project, try and commend their positive suggestions and write out agreed actions. If agreed actions not carried out ask why. If it continues start managing their poor performance and document sepcifically what is not being done.


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