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What Are the Best Ways to Deal with Difficult People?

Updated on April 8, 2022Lifestyle

Difficult people can quickly turn your dream job into a nightmare if you let them. However, your happiness and productivity are worth the fight. Let’s consider the best ways to deal with challenging personalities.

Start with yourself

In “Man in the Mirror,” a song recorded by Michael Jackson, the lyrics provide an effective formula for improving your environment: “Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.” Self-examination might reveal that you are overreacting to a situation. For example, perhaps you don’t appreciate a particular coworker who gives harsh criticism. Stop for a moment and consider: What are the person’s motives? Instead of assuming she’s trying to bring you down, why not assume she’s trying to make you the best you can be? Adjusting your attitude can help you to see the bright side of irritating behavior.

The song continues: “It’s gonna feel real good.” Scientific evidence supports the claim. Emotional intelligence includes having empathy and good social skills. In 2013, a study published in Psychological Science found that people with high emotional intelligence made wise decisions. A 2008 study revealed that positive work interactions correlated with good health, a factor associated with few sick days and thus higher productivity. What author William Arthur Ward said was true: “When we seek to discover the best in others, we somehow bring out the best in ourselves.”


You can’t expect anyone to read your mind. Often, problems arise when one person misunderstands the humor or intentions of another. You need to give your colleague the opportunity to make things right.

Approach your colleague and explain why his behavior offends you. Plan your words. Strive for the most palatable way to voice your complaint. You might role-play first with an objective party. Ask a friend to monitor your tone, your words, and your body language. When you speak to the difficult person in real life, carefully choose a time and place. (For instance, avoid addressing issues in the middle of stressful projects.) Find a neutral place (i.e., not your office) where you can discuss the matter privately.

Bill Eddy, President of High Conflict Institute, suggests the following formula: Express regret that you have to address the behavior. Explain how you plan to help the person. Give examples of how you want them to act and how new practices would be beneficial to both parties. Let’s look at an example scenario. Think about your workplace challenge and how you can adapt the script to deal with it.

You: . . ., I’m sorry that I have to bring this up, but the way you . . . makes me feel . . . On my end, I will . . . However, if in the future, you could . . . If you do, the process of . . . will work much more smoothly than it does now.

What to do if your efforts fail

You approached the employee about his or her behavior. If there is no change or the situation worsens, what can you do?

Ignore the bad behavior

Just like young bullies, difficult adults may seek attention with bad behavior. To show them that you are unaffected, you can deflect insults by laughing along with their jokes or making a neutral retort as if you didn’t understand their rude intentions. Then, change the subject. Once they fail to get the attention they crave from you, they may move on to a new target.

Nasty colleague: I heard Benjamin took vacation leave because he was embarrassed about losing the Denman account.

You: The beach is a restful environment. I can’t wait for my next vacation.

Avoid the person

If it’s possible without damaging your ability to work, limit the interaction you have with the difficult person. Withdraw from shared voluntary duties and choose projects and committees that don’t include him or her.

Involve the superiors

Involving the superiors is the second-to-last resort. In the best-case scenario, the boss can straighten out the issue for you. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, the situation becomes worse because the colleague resents you for getting him or her in trouble. Or, you might find that the boss sides with the culprit.

Find a new job

The real last resort is quitting your job. You can either transfer to a different department within the same company or break ties altogether. You’ll have to weigh the cost of this decision. Is the problem significant enough to merit such drastic action? Will you enjoy another kind of work? Will you easily find another position? And if you do, how will you handle it if there are challenging people at the new workplace?

What are the best ways of dealing with difficult people at work? Will you confront the problem directly by approaching the person to talk about their behavior? Will you let a supervisor know and let them handle the problem? Or will you flee to greener pastures by finding a new job? If you weigh the pros and cons of each strategy carefully, you’ll likely find a solution that works for you.

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