How to deal with difficult people

Posted by on Dec 2, 2011 in Career Advice | 26 comments

Working with a difficult person can make you miserable! No one wants to be miserable at work- at least I don’t- and if you’re reading this article I imagine you don’t want to be miserable, either.

Years ago I found myself miserable at work. I worked with the most difficult person I’ve ever met, and what was formerly a job and company I loved. I was so worn out and frustrated that I wanted to quit my job on the spot. I muddled through several horrible months at work and until the difficult co-worker quit before I did.

After she quit, I had time to reflect on the experience and my part in the problem; and it truly had become my problem. Although I wasn’t the person causing the problem, I was working with it every day.

I learned a lot from my experience and I continue to carefully observe difficult people, and notice when others manage themselves effectively in an unmanageable situation.

So how to do you deal with that annoying, passive-aggressive, whiny, hostile, negative or martyred colleague?

In my experience there is very little you can do to effect change in other people; you can only hope to manage your own experience, thoughts and actions. Ultimately managing your relationship with difficult people is up to you.

Respond, don’t react.
When you react you are accepting responsibility for someone else’s thoughts, behavior or actions. Once you have taken ownership of another’s judgements, you may carry that with you for days, months or even years.

Take a deep breath, and allow yourself a moment to respond. When you respond, you take ownership of your own thoughts, behavior and actions. You reply from your perspective and experience. It is not necessary to agree to deny someone else’s position, instead you share your own.

Respond with compassion.
Most people are on their worst behavior when they are suffering. Perhaps they are dealing with a loss in their personal lives, or they are struggling with an unseen illness. Maybe they lack appropriate social skills and are stumbling through their life as best they can.

Being able to view a difficult person with kindness will help balance your perspective. In the heat of the moment, it is easy to see others only for their worst qualities, and the situation may appear worse than it is.

Responding to difficult people with compassion will benefit you as much as it benefits the other person. Think of one good quality in that person and hold onto that thought when you respond.

You don’t have to accept unacceptable behavior, and you can still choose to treat others as you’d want to be treated on your worst day, and your best.


Clarify communication.
You may be able to avoid future conflict with difficult people practicing clear communication. Use clarifying questions to ask for specifics or examples.

A useful communication tool is to repeat what the other person said to ensure you understood. Ask follow up questions. Agree on next steps, and put it in writing.

Being clear and documenting your communication with a difficult person can also help you maintain your credibility if you are dealing with a manipulative and dishonest colleague.

Choose not to engage.
You do not have to attend every argument you are invited to. You can politely decline the invitation to engage in gossip, argument, and complaints.

You have the option to remove yourself from a heated discussion. Instead, choose to excuse yourself if a difficult person tries to engage you in an argument, and come back the discussion later. If the difficult person doesn’t seem able to have a calm, professional discussion, you may request to discuss the issue at hand with your supervisor or HR representative present.

You can choose not to participate in gossip and complaints by saying, “I’m not comfortable discussing this.”, or “That situation sounds really difficult. I hope you work it out.” and opting not to engage further.

Take care of you.
Dealing with difficult people is stressful, and in times of stress it is essential to attend to your mental, emotional and physical health.

Take a deep breath, go for a walk, get a good night’s sleep, take breaks, eat delicious and nutritious food.

HALT when you notice you are hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or hurt, anxious, lost or tense. Make taking care of you a priority!

Effectively managing yourself and your behavior when dealing with difficult people can improve your quality of life in a truly difficult situation. By applying these tools you may also maintain your reputation and credibility, and build valuable relationship and leadership skills.

I love your comments! Have you ever worked with a difficult person? How did you manage the relationship? What was the result?

Image courtesy of P Shanks


  1. Great tips Chrysta
    we all deal with difficult people and it makes a lot of sense that we learn how to deal with them , thanks :)

    • I’m so grateful for your comments, Farouk!

      Not only do we all deal with difficult people, I think each of us has been difficult at some point in our lives. I am thankful to have learned ways of managing relationships with difficult people and an increased awareness of my own behavior in relation to others.

      Enjoy your day!


  2. Great advice here for dealing with difficult people.

    I love how you say –

    “…you can only hope to manage your own experience, thoughts and actions. Ultimately managing your relationship with difficult people is up to you”

    As hard as this might be to swallow sometimes, if we are encountering difficult people in our reality then we have created this situation for a reason.

    When you can accept this then you free yourself to use the situation as your own practice to transform the way in which you deal with it. If you don’t, you will continue to attract more of the same until you do.

    Every situation we encounter in our lives, especially the more negative ones are really opportunities for us to expand and we can only do this when we look beyond ‘what is’ and create different future realities for ourselves.


    • Thank you for your insight and wisdom, Marcus!

      It can be challenging to take responsibility for our own experience in life, but this is the true key to happiness. Sometimes we encounter difficult people, sometimes we are difficult people, sometimes our life changes instantly and significantly, and struggle is part of the human experience. It is what we do with and how we perceive these challenges that determines if we live a happy or unhappy life.

      I certainly have the option to blame others for how they have harmed me, but as long as my struggle and discomfort belongs to someone else, as long as I am a victim, I will continue to struggle.

      I love the insights you’ve brought to this topic- thank you!


  3. Thanks for this great article. I have shared this with my paralegal association members. We encounter difficult people, now and then, in the legal field. :)

    • Thanks for your comment, Satyra, and for sharing my article! I can see how legal issues would amplify people’s character defects. I have an accounting background and I have experienced first-hand how much stress is caused by financial concerns, and this stress causes otherwise reasonable people to behave poorly.

      Have a grateful day!


  4. I remember those days Chrysta and they weren’t pleasant. I specifically remember one that was a gossiper. She was always saying nasty things about me behind my back that of course weren’t true. I think what made me so mad is that she claimed to be a Christian, her husband was actually a minister.

    I continued to treat her nicely and she had even invited me to outside functions which is why the way she treated me was so unsettling to me.

    I never confronted her in the open but I did privately. She always continued to deny ever saying anything but we were a very small office so she couldn’t run from the truth. I ended up leaving before she did because my position was being dissolved.

    The way I look at people like that is that what goes around comes around and her time would come. I also have learned over the years that people like that are truly miserably people behind closed doors. They have something lacking which in her case was attention. There really is nothing you can do to change the person or their actions. The best thing to do is not give into it.

    Hope no one else is living with this at the moment but I know we all have at some point in time.

    • Thanks for your comment, Adrienne!

      Many years ago I worked with someone who didn’t like me because of rumors she heard about me. I continued to be kind and respectful towards her and she eventually approached me and explained that she had heard some bad things about me but I was consistently so kind to her that she realized the things she heard weren’t true.

      I agree that people who are difficult are deeply unhappy with themselves and thier lives and this is the source of their behavior. It helps me greatly to separate the behavior from the individual and remember that they are imperfect human beings, just as I am.

      Treating others with kindness, regardless of their behavior, helps keep me in a positive & productive mindset and sometimes it can even change the way other people treat you, as it did with me! I also feel strongly it’s just the right thing to do.

      I applaud you for confronting your difficult co-worker in private. Many of us, myself included, are hesistant to confront issues directly, even though I know it’s healthy and appropriate. You are so kind and honest and those are traits I greatly admire in you!

      Thank you for your lovely comment! I appreciate your positive contribution to my blog, and to the world. :)


  5. Hello, This is a great website! I stumbled upon it at Surely Sonsy (which by the way is also a great site).

    I look forward to spending some time perusing your site.

    I can certainly relate to miserable work relationships. I was a paramedic for many years and the morale at the private service I worked for was terrible. There was a lot of negative gossip, speculation about coworkers private lives, backstabbing and competition. Not so comforting when you consider out responsibility to protecting and serving the public!
    Learning how to respond and not react is a real skill and takes time and practice. I’m still working on it and preparing those skills as I move into the human/social services field.

    Thanks for the great site…btw, I read your comment on the SS site about starting your on OOTD blog..good luck and I look forward to seeing it. One day I will find the time to create my own!

    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment, Lisa! Thanks for clicking over from Surely Sonsy (love her blog!).

      Responding instead of reacting is such an important skill in unhealthy work environments, and it’s also beneficial in healthy work environments! Like you, I’m still working it. One of the greatest gifts of blogging is interacting with positive and developing people with whom I can share inspiration and encouragement!

      I wish you luck as you move into human/social services. I’m making a similar transition myself, so good luck to us both! :)

      Thanks agin for reading! Have a grateful day!


  6. This is good advice not only for dealing with difficult people, but also for not being a difficult person. If everyone took these tips to heart there would be a lot less difficult people to deal with.

    • Thanks for your comment, Corey!

      I’m certain I have been a difficult person in someone else’s experience at least once in my life, and I agree completely that following these tips reduces the likelihood of being that difficult person as much as it may ease the experience of working with a difficult person. I believe I cannot truly treat others better than I treat myself and I believe we all do the best we can with what we have. This belief certainly makes it easier to relate to other people and go easier on myself, too.

      Have a grateful day!


  7. Chrysta,

    What a wonderful post! I wish you had written it, somehow found out who I was and sent it to me 2.5 years ago! (I don’t know that I would have really understood, but I do now!)

    Chrysta, not understanding this ENTIRE post 2.5 years ago almost killed me. Dead. Finished. I have two children!

    They Don’t Understand by Sawyer Brown is a song that runs through my mind a lot. It speaks to me, because we really don’t understand what someone else is going through.

    Thank you for a terrific post, I’ll send it to as many people as I can, maybe it will help someone else that needs it as badly as I did.


    • Thanks for your comment, Amber-Lee!

      I have dealt with multiple difficult people but there was one, in particular, that very nearly came to driving me off the deep end. I was wading in the deep end! The problem was, at the time, I was taking ownership everything this difficult person did. I felt it was somehow my responsibility to repair the relationship or make sense of the relationship. I got sucked into the drama they were bringing and I held on for dear life as I was spun around and around and around. Believe me when I tell you I understand how you were feeling dealing with your difficult person!

      What I learned was I only truly need to take ownership of myself. The behavior and actions of difficult people belong to them- not me! Once I started focusing on myself, things started to improve. They were still challenging, but I no longer lived or died by someone else’s rule.

      I tried to find some solutions when I went through this and I was disappointed not to find much. I’m happy to hear you find this article helpful and believe it might be useful to others. I hope someone else dealing with a difficult person will read it and find a little bit of peace in their day.

      Have a grateful day!


  8. Hi Chrysta,

    I often have my shares of difficult people and I say I am still trying to learn how to handle them. I have often trouble communicating with people who oscillate between emotions and logic alternatively with me. If I am logical they are emotional and vice versa.
    My way of dealing sometimes has resulted in arguments though I try to avoid them. I guess there are some miles for me to go before I can handle them.
    I have read your tips and I think they make a lot of sense. I will try to incorporate them in my future dealings with people. Thanks for sharing :)

    • I appreciate your comment, Ashvini!

      I am still learning, too. This post was quite challenging for me to write because the tips and tools I have listed don’t yet come easily and naturally to me. At this point I have to remind myself of these tools, and remember to use them. If you discover any other useful tips, please share them!

      A particularly tricky challenge for me when dealing with difficult people is trying to create logic where there is none. In my experience most difficult people are behaving emotionally, and their actions are motivated by fears and resentments. I want to make sense of it and trying to make sense of their emotional behavior usually only makes me crazy! So I have learned, as much as possible, to respond and refrain from engaging as a starting point when working with difficult people.

      If the difficult people you deal with tend to alternate between logical and emotional, perhaps you are getting swept up in a reaction-based relationship and the pattern of this relationship is taking opposing sides. That situation sounds very exhausting and I hope you are able to find some peace by trying some of these tips. Let me know how it works out!

      Have a grateful day!


      • Hey Chrysta,

        Presently I am going through a phase dealing with a difficult person who is unfortunately my relative as well. He has been very illogical while being highly emotional( both extremes as you can see). I am somehow not able to determine the reason of his anger towards me.
        For now to keep away from argument, I have ceased the communication( which is not the best strategy I know). When he probably comes to his senses, I will be able to ask him what his problem is exactly.
        Also recently I posted an article on similar kind of people. Its mentioned below.

        • Ashvini,

          I have been in a similar situation with family members and it is not an easy situation. I have also temporarily ceased communication, which I agree is not the best strategy, but was unfortunately necessary before I developed better skills for dealing with this type of difficulty.

          When dealing with difficult family members, I try to separate the behavior from the person, and try to approach the individual with love even if that is not what I’m getting in return. It is important for me to set boundaries and remove myself if I am being treated poorly. Perhaps I will attend a family event and if the situation escalates simply say, “I’m so glad I got to see you; I have to leave now. Please take care.”

          I also use response versus reaction and not engaging when dealing with difficult family issues. Sometimes I do react and engage, and I have the option to excuse myself and collect my thoughts, and my serenity, at any given moment.

          Thanks for sharing your article! I look forward to reading it.


  9. Difficult people. Huh. Those annoying ugly faces that call themselves beautiful…lol. Live. Love. Work. Simple :)

    • I like to think we are all beautiful, even if we sometimes hide behind a mask of ugliness out of fear, resentment or anger.

      Thanks for your comment, Jaky! Have a grateful day!


  10. Great post! You listed the best ways to handle such situation. I spent an entire year dealing with a very difficult person. I finally got so emotionally tired of the conflict that I quit that position. As I reflect back on the circumstances, I think I should have not reacted and not engaged by being present within the conflict. I learned a valuable lesson that year. One thing you can count on in life is that there will always be that one person who thrives on creating conflict.

    • Thanks for sharing a bit of your experience working with a difficult person. I am fortunate the most difficult person I worked with quit just short of 4 months of employment or I might have been the one out the door. I have worked with varying degrees of difficult people, and the worst offenders cause considerable stress the work environment. How unfortunate that companies might loose great employees because of the bad behavior of one.

      I am grateful at least to have learned from my experience working with a very difficult co-worker. At the time I struggled through, and now I have some tools to use in future encounters with difficult people. I am a stronger, more confident and well balanced person now because I was able to learn from that negative experience. I’m happy to hear you are, too.

      Thanks for your comment! Have a great day!


  11. > Being able to view a difficult person with kindness will help balance your perspective.
    Well put. It’s a great way to be “with” somebody vs. against them, or defensive.

    • Thanks for your comment, J.D.!

      I am a far happier person when I work with the people around me instead of against them. It’s exhausting to be at odds with msyelf, others and my situation. I have learned that I don’t need things to go my way to make the best of them.

      I appreciate your thoughts. Have a grateful day!


  12. Very good tips here, Chrysta!

    It’s bound to happen one way or the other; if we continue to live, we will run into our fair share of negative people. There’s really no way around that. However, what you’ve done here is list some outstanding ways to go about not letting difficult people get under our skin. This will certainly not only work at the workplace, but in our everyday lives as well.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing. :)

    • Thanks for your awesome comment, Deeone!

      I’m glad that I was able to learn something from my experience dealing with difficult people in past, and it has already served me well dealing with difficult people in the present. I hope the tools I’ve learned can help someone else avoid unnecessary struggle and discomfort. I was pretty surprised at the lack of solution-based articles when I went through this years ago.

      If you have any additional tips to share, I’d love to hear them.

      Thanks again for your comment! Have a grateful day!


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