By Colleen Kettenhofen

“No one can get your goat if they don’t know where it’s tied up.” ~ Zig Ziglar

From time to time, everyone has experience in dealing with difficult people. We can all be difficult from time to time! Whether you’re working with difficult people, or living with them, here are some quick tips you can put in place immediately.

  1. Listen more effectively. In my seminars on dealing with difficult people, a lot of participants will list this as one of their takeaways. They say they “know” to listen, but haven’t put it into practice. Listening is the number one tool in communication, especially when dealing with difficult people.
  2. Step back and analyze the situation from an outside perspective. When you are less emotionally involved and “cool your jets”, the answers come for how to effectively deal with difficult people. Whether you’re working with a difficult boss, dealing with a difficult co-worker, or someone else.
  3. Ignoring often doesn’t work. Tensions build, feelings fester and tempers flare!
  4. Choose your battles. There are times when you have to “let it go”. Know when to speak up and when to pick your battles.
  5. Criticize in private, praise in public. Never publicly criticize someone as you will look like the bad guy and the difficult person will only become more distraught.
  6. Maintain respect for them—even if you disagree or dislike them. At least acknowledge what they say. Acknowledgement is different from agreement. Think about how you would want to be treated.
  7. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This is a cliché but it works. Why? It gets you out of your own agenda and helps you see the situation from the other person’s point of view.
  8. People often won’t care what you think unless they think you care. In my seminars on leadership, when I ask managers what traits they think are most important for bosses to possess, “caring” and “supportive” always rank near the top. At least attempt to see something from the other person’s perspective and with an open mind.
  9. Maintain high expectations and standards if you are dealing with difficult people, and especially if you are managing difficult people. Otherwise, they might take advantage of you.
  10. Strive for greater communication. Often, it’s not that there isn’t enough communication it’s that it’s bad communication. Work on improving your conflict resolution skills. If you are a manager, consider training everyone in conflict resolution. One of the main reasons teams fail is because the people on the team don’t like each other, or aren’t skilled in how to handle conflict effectively.
  11. Invest in communication skills training and conflict resolution skills courses to improve the part you can control—you.
  12. Don’t lose emotional control. Antagonists and passive-aggressives will try to push your buttons.
  13. One key to dealing with difficult people is to avoid them when they’re in a bad mood. If they’re always in a bad mood, be around them when they’re in a “better” mood!
  14. Accept, change or reject. Know that ultimately you have three choices. 1) Accept the situation knowing it won’t change. 2) Attempt to change your relationship with them by changing how you react. 3) If it’s affecting your health, it may be time to “reject” the situation and move on.
  15. No “but’s” allowed! Don’t follow giving them positive reinforcement with “But on the other hand…” The word “but” only negates everything positive you just said.
  16. Non-verbally position yourself at their eye level. For example, if they are sitting when you talk with them, sit. If they are standing, stand. Converse at their level.
  17. Avoid the word “need” when possible and use “want” instead. Saying politely and tactfully, “John, I want to have the project back by noon so that we’ll meet our deadline” keeps you objective and on an even keel. “Want” is more assertive as well.
  18. Watch your tone of voice. Avoid an autocratic or sarcastic tone.
  19. In face-to-face communication, your tone and body language account for 93% of your message.
  20. Give positive reinforcement when the difficult person does something well. Show genuine appreciation. Often difficult people are cantankerous because they feel underappreciated.
  21. Avoid absolutes such as “You always” and “You never”. It puts difficult people (or anyone for that matter!) further on the defensive.
  22. Don’t take it personally. Often they’re difficult because of something going on with them. In my keynotes and seminars on dealing with difficult people, I like to say “Remember QTIP” which stands for Quit Taking It Personally.
  23. Guard your mental state. Don’t let these folks keep you down.
  24. Remember the person who constantly angers you, or constantly intimidates you, controls you.
  25. Mutually agree to move on. Agree to disagree. If this isn’t possible, at least “move on” in your own mind.
  26. A key strategy in dealing with difficult people is to get at the root cause. Attempt to understand what’s driving that difficult behavior.
  27. E + R = 0. Event + Reaction = Outcome. You can’t control the event but you can control how you respond.

For example, there’s the story of the couple who were divorcing. A neighbor said to the wife, “Do you think you’d ever get back together?” She replied, “No, because we have said things to each other that are so horrible, that even after apologizing they could never be taken back. There’s no way we’d get back together.”

The moral of the story? Be careful what you say. Once those words are out, they’re hard to take away.

“The disease of me often results in the defeat of us.”

Pat Riley of NBA fame


About Colleen Kettenhofen, Leadership Expert

CREDENTIALS: Colleen Kettenhofen is an international workplace and employee management expert, award-winning corporate trainer, and conference keynote speaker. A media veteran, she has appeared on numerous radio shows across the country and has written more than 40 popular articles on diverse workplace issues. Colleen has delivered more than 1,100 entertaining programs in 48 states and five countries. She is the author of 10 published audio programs and two books including SECRETS YOUR BOSS ISN’T TELLING YOU.

Colleen Kettenhofen is available for keynotes, breakout sessions, and seminars by calling (971) 212-0479.