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Dealing with Difficult People

Dealing with Difficult PeopleIn an article titled “Becoming Adept at Dealing with Difficult People and Avoiding Conflict,” Elizabeth Scott states people should “work to maintain a sense of humor.” She references shows such as “Modern Family” and suggests they can be used to help see the humor in dealing with difficult people.

Whether in our personal or work lives, we likely have encountered difficult people. While some may seem to have mastered the skill of remaining calm in the midst of chaos, others seem to struggle in this area.

When dealing with difficult individuals, it is important to maintain composure, assess the situation, and look for the most appropriate way to deal with it, then find the most reasonable resolution. This article explores several tips on how to do so.

Remember the Serenity Prayer

I find that the Serenity Prayer has the power to get people through all types of situations. Dealing with difficult people seems to be no exception. Applied to this situation, the Serenity Prayer would look something like this.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (them), the courage to change the things that I can (me), and the wisdom to know the difference.

One of the keys to dealing with difficult people is learning to accept them where they are. If we can have the insight to look at our part in the situation and the courage to make the necessary changes, we may find that it often is easier to deal with others.

Take a Look at the Man (or Woman) in the Mirror

If you find yourself dealing with difficult people on a regular basis and it’s not associated with your occupation, maybe it’s time to take a look at yourself. A mentor once said to me, “if you want to know they type of person you are, look at the type of people you attract.” If this statement makes you cringe, it may be the hard truth. I’m a firm believer that if you surround yourself with negative people, you are bound to feel negative most of the time. The same goes for drama. If drama always “finds” you, it’s possible that you may have to examine your role in the drama.

If you find that dealing with difficult people is not mostly personal but work-related, take the best approach and find out how you can make the experience the best for both you and your customer or client.

Know When to Quit

Sometimes you may need to take a step back and evaluate the situation. Choose your battles wisely. There will be times where you may want to pursue a conversation with the individual to try to reach a compromise. However, there also may be times where you resign to the fact that their perspective may not change.

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Wait to Respond

I believe it is human nature to want to immediately respond when we feel challenged or attacked. When dealing with a difficult individual, our first instinct often is to immediately try to state our case or prove our point. A slight delay gives us the time to think before we speak. It may also afford the difficult individual with the opportunity to reflect on what they are feeling.

This technique can be applied to personal and work situations. In face-to-face communication, it may be beneficial to verbalize that a break is needed. However, in the world of modern technology, communication often takes place via emails, text messages, and social media. In these cases, think before you send and if possible, have someone else review what you have typed before sending.

Consider the Other’s Perspective

I find this particular step helpful. I often try to pause to consider how or what the other person may be feeling and what their take on the situation may be. I have discovered that a little empathy goes a long way.

This particular step shifts the focus from me to the individual I am dealing with. For example, I can recall encountering a client who showed up for her appointment two hours late and could not be seen. She was very frustrated as she had arranged for child care and taken public transportation to get to the appointment on time. After listening to what it took for her to get to the appointment, I was able to compliment her on her initiative and willingness to go through great lengths to make it to her appointment. With the one positive comment, she immediately began de-escalating, took a new appointment and returned.

This is not an error-proof tip. This situation worked out well, but all may not end with the same result. However, it is my belief that when we can show some understanding and look at things from a perspective other than our own, it ends up being beneficial for both parties.

Bring on the Honey

This one is one of my favorites because it reminds me of my Southern roots and the wisdom of my grandmother. My grandmother used to tell me “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” I’m sure it’s a pretty common quote, but I frequently hear my grandmother’s voice reminding me of this in difficult situations. I believe the key is finding the right balance. Pouring on too much honey can actually have an adverse effect. However, with just the right amount, this is the perfect de-escalating technique. Keeping this in mind not only keeps you calm, but often is calming to the other individual. When you are pleasant, it becomes very difficult for the other individual to remain escalated and frustrated. This tip can be accomplished not only with kind words, but also with a nice tone. Remember, it’s not always what you say, but how you say it.

Dale Carnegie, American lecturer and author, said that when dealing with people, “you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotions, creatures bristling with prejudice, and motivated by pride and vanity.” I believe we are by nature both logical and emotional, but emotions often override our logic. When dealing with difficult individuals it is important to be able to empathize and understand, but also to be logical. When we are able to think before reacting the results are often much more positive.

Carnegie also said “any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.” By demonstrating self-control we are better equipped for dealing with almost any situation and any individual.

Dealing with Difficult People

Donna M. White, LMHC, CACP

Donna M. White, LPCS, LPC, LAC, MAC, CACII is a licensed professional counselor in practice in Charleston, SC. She specializes in the treatment of: anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, stress management, and adjustment disorders.

APA Reference
White, D. (2018). Dealing with Difficult People. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.