Whoever we are, whatever we do, we’re going to come across difficult people … and occassionally we will be one too. We can let difficult people occupy our thoughts, keep repeating stories about how unfair they are and stay upset … or … we can find more effective strategies for dealing with them.

Here are five tried and true strategies I have used (and teach others to use) with difficult people.

1. Listen, Listen and Listen Again

Sometimes difficult people just need to be heard and validated. As soon as you acknowledge they have been heard, the situation starts getting better.

The types of listening I am talking about is not the ones where you:

  • think about other things until they finish
  • pass judgement on them while they are talking
  • find all the reasons they are wrong

The type of listening that helps is the one where you actively seek to understand and see their point of view.  You don’t have to agree with them, but you do at least need to be curious about why they are doing and saying what they are.

2. Look For The ‘Baby In Their Back Seat’

There is a story about a woman in a car at traffic lights who caused chaos when the lights changed and her car didn’t move. People behind her got frustrated until she let them know she had a baby in the back seat with a blue face because he was choking. 

We are essentially all ‘good’ humans trying to do the best we can with what we have. When any of us behaves in a way that inconveniences or frustrates others, it is usually because we too, have a ‘baby in the backseat’. Looking for the baby in the other person’s backseat helps you to first come from a place of empathy (which is always better received than a place of frustration) and second identify the underlying issue for the difficult person that needs to be solved. (Often it is that they feel disrespected, excluded or hurt.)

3. The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse And Respect

Dr John Gottman spent years researching couples and the way they disagree and he found there were ‘the four horsemen of the Apocalypse’ which predict whether a couple will survive:

  1. Criticism – Where we go about proving that we are right and someone else is wrong.
  2. Contempt – Where you lack respect for the other person and make yourself seem superior to them. (This one is the most toxic).
  3. Defensiveness – Where you shift the blame back to the other person and refuse to take any responsibility for the issue.
  4. Stonewalling – Refusal to discuss the issue at all.

If you enter any discussion with a difficult person using the above strategies, you will be adding fuel to the fire. If you can approach the other person with respect, you will have a chance of calming things down.

 4. Law Of Reciprocity

The law of reciprocity is a fundamental law of human behaviour that developed from our need to belong to tribes to survive. It is simply that we feel obliged to return to others what they give to us. If someone buys you a birthday present or gives you a compliment, you will want to give them one. And … if someone is nasty to you, you will want to give it back too.

When it comes to conversations with difficult people, Dr John Gottman found that if you start a conversation:

  • harshly, then 96% of the time the other person will be harsh back
  • warmly, then the other person will nearly always respond with warmth

The worst way to have a conversation with a difficult person is to start with an aggressive tone. The best way to have a conversation with a difficult person is to start with warmly.

5. Ask, Don’t Tell

Ever come across the difficult person where none of your suggestions to solve their problem are good enough? In these cases, I ask the difficult person what it would take to solve the problem and bounce the ball back into their court.

This also overcomes the issue of people who get energy and attention from having problems. When you bounce the ball back into their court, you stop putting energy into solving a problem they don’t want solved. You can say something like, “That does sound like a challenging problem,” to finish the conversation and move forward.

Using The Strategies

I use (and teach) these strategies as ways of dealing with difficult people. If one doesn’t work, I try another one and keep going until I find the thing that works with that person. Most people really are good people who are only being difficult because of the situation they find themselves in.