Professional Advice: How to Deal With Difficult People

Many try to avoid conflict whenever possible, but sometimes working with difficult people makes confrontation unavoidable. Whether it’s a coworker who undermines your work or a manager who micromanages your tasks, you will occasionally need to communicate effectively to resolve conflict at work.

Here’s what to know about how to deal with difficult people.

A photo of a young woman with smoke coming out of both ears.

Why Should Conflict Not Be Avoided?

You might think avoiding conflict as much as possible is doing your coworkers a favor, but the opposite is true. Bottling up your emotions when dealing with difficult people or behaviors will only lead to increased frustration, degradation of your working relationship, and breakdowns in communication.

Fear of conflict in the workplace only leads to more tension. Instead, healthily approaching conflict can achieve better outcomes, strengthen relationships, and improve the workplace environment. The key to embracing conflict and maximizing its potential is effectively learning to deal with difficult people.

How to Have Difficult Conversations

I’ve found two excellent books on dealing with difficult people: Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People by Renee Evenson and Can We Talk? by Roberta Chinsky Matuson.

In Can We Talk? Matuson lays out seven principles for approaching difficult conversations. These are tactics to remember to ensure that difficult conversations remain on the rails. They are as follows:

  1. Confidence: both in your ability to initiate a tough conversation and in the other person to receive what you have to say;
  2. Clarity: effectively communicating your point and genuinely listening to the other person’s perspective;
  3. Compassion: having empathy and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes;
  4. Curiosity: asking questions rather than getting defensive;
  5. Compromise: being willing to cede some ground in favor of the actual resolution;
  6. Credibility: recognizing that your actions need to live up to the solution you’ve found; and finally
  7. Courage: navigating any obstacles that may arise.

In Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People, Evenson takes this further by envisioning 60+ situations and providing over 325 words and phrases you can incorporate into a script for these tough talks.

For all of these conversations, there are five steps that Evenson recommends you follow to ensure the best outcome. First, here is a foolproof strategy for how to deal with difficult people:

  1. Think first. Don’t ever react in anger to a problematic situation. Instead, give yourself time to cool down and process what happened.
  2. Gain a better understanding. Try to think about the other person’s perspective. Give them grace in case there is a misunderstanding.
  3. Define the problem. Calmly approach the other person and explain the issue. Use “I” phrases to avoid sounding accusatory. Please explain how the issue impacted you and acknowledge that they likely didn’t intend this to happen. Apologize for any part you may have had in the conflict.
  4. Propose your best solution. What would you like to happen moving forward? Use phrases of compromise such as “Can we brainstorm a way to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” or “Let’s find a solution that works for both of us.” Be open to negotiating to come to a mutual agreement genuinely.
  5. Agree on a resolution. Once you’ve found a solution, use resolution phrases to wrap things up. This can be like, “I value hearing your perspective, and I’m glad we had this conversation,” or “I understand your viewpoint much better now, and I hope you feel the same about mine.”

By following these steps, avoiding strong emotions, and remaining non-accusatory in your words and tone, you can resolve workplace conflicts and grow closer to coworkers you’ve had strained relationships with.

Still not confident about how to deal with difficult people in the workplace? A business coach can help. Sign up to have my weekly leadership and business management articles delivered to your email inbox to grow your communication skills and improve your confidence at work.

Coach Dave

Dave Schoenbeck
Follow Dave