How to cope up with difficult people

team work cartoon illustration

Why Are People Difficult?

We often find ourselves saying that someone is awfully difficult to work with, but have you ever asked yourself the question – Why is this so? Individuals usually behave in a difficult manner because they have learned that doing so keeps others off balance and incapable of effective action. Whether brow-beating others into submission or avoiding distress by sitting on a decision,

OK, and that they are largely unaware of the long-term costs of what they do is incidental to the fact that they put you at a disadvantage.

Problems With Difficult People

We encounter difficult people often. They are the hostile customers and co-workers, the indecisive, up/down bosses and the over-agreeable subordinates of the world who are constant headaches to work with. Although their numbers are small, their impact is large. They are responsible for absenteeism, significant losses in productivity and lost customers or clients. They frustrate and demoralize those unlucky enough to have to work with them and they are difficult to understand. They usually appear immune to all the usual methods of communication and persuasion designed to convince them or help them to change their ways.

A difficult person’s troublesome behaviour is habitual and affects most of the people with whom he or she comes in contact. Difficult people are seen as problems by most of the people around them, not just those who are incompetent, overly sensitive or weak.

Why Coping Is Important For Effective Communication

Coping means “to contend on equal terms”. Effective coping is the sum of those actions that you can take to correct the power balance, to minimise the impact of others’ difficult behaviour in the immediate situation in which you find yourself.

It is important to remember what coping is not. Coping is neither accepting people as they are (and long-suffering the consequences) nor is it trying to change a set of attitudes, values and in-built behaviour that is part of a person’s personality.

Acceptance, while it avoids the unpleasantness of confrontation, is attained at the double cost to the individual trying to cope – a feeling of martyrdom (I’ll bear the brunt of this difficult person) in the

acceptance and reinforcement of the behaviour in The Difficult Person.

Trying to change another person’s personality, on the other hand, can be extremely difficult and expensive in terms of time, effort and money, particularly when the person trying to make the change is The Difficult Person’s manager.

Coping, on the other hand enables you and the Difficult Person to get on with the business at hand. If you are able to cope effectively, you will be disrupting The “successful” functioning of the difficult behaviour. When the behaviour strategies of The Difficult Person don’t work, when you respond in ways different from those expected, you are able to get about your business and The Difficult Person is provided with an incentive, and an opportunity to develop other, more constructive behaviour.

The coping methods to be described below are not designed to be manipulative in a negative way. They are not designed to use people’s motives against them, or to be sneaky or underhanded. They do not require that your intentions, and the actions you take to implement those intentions, be designed to further your own interests at the other person’s expense.

The intended purpose of coping, rather, is to balance the power Difficult People can have over you, and to further mutual interests by producing a situation in which you can both function as productively as possible.

The Seven Most Recognised Types Of Difficult People

Do you recognise or know or work with any of these people?

1. The Hostile – Aggressive. These are the people who try to bully and overwhelm by bombarding others, making cutting remarks, or throwing tantrums when things don’t go the way they are certain things should.

2. Complainers. Complainers are individuals who gripe incessantly but who never try to do anything about what they complain about, either because they feel powerless to do so or because they refuse to bear the responsibility.

3. Silent and Unresponsives. These are the people who respond to every question you might have, every plea for help you make, with a yes, a no, or a grunt.

4. Super-Agreeables. Often very personable, funny, and outgoing individuals, Super-Agreeables are always very reasonable, sincere, and supportive in your presence but don’t produce what they say they will, or act contrary to the way, they have led you to expect.

5. Negatives. When a project is proposed, The Negatives are bound to object with “It won’t work”, or “It is impossible”. All too often they effectively deflate any optimism you might have.

6. Know-It-All Experts. These are the “superior” people who believe, and want you to recognise, that you know everything there is to know about anything worth knowing. They’re condescending, imposing (if they really do know what they’re talking about), or pompous (if they don’t), and they will likely make you feel like an idiot.

7. Indecisives. Those who put off major decisions until the decision is made for them, those who can’t let go of anything until it is perfect – which often means never.


  1. Assess The Situation
  2. Has the person in question usually acted differently in similar situations?
  3. Am I reacting out of proportion to what the situation warrants?
  4. Was there a particular incident that triggered the troublesome behaviour? Will direct, open discussion relieve the situation?
  5. Stop Wishing They Were Different
  6. Blaming people won’t change them. Hoping they change won’t work as well.
  7. Take A Perspective On Their Action
  8. Label their type of behavior. Understand their behaviour

Formulate A Plan For Coping

Use the appropriate coping strategy, and fine tune if for this particular situation. Change your own behavior.

Implement Your Strategy

Choose the right time, when the person is not overburdened with other problems, and make sure you have enough time, and energy, to carry through with your coping plan. Practise your strategy before the confrontation.

Monitor Progress And Modify When Appropriate

Be positive and provide feedback with discretion. Know when to abandon the attempt and keep your distance.


  • Bullies, by bombarding, making cutting remarks, throwing tantrums.
  • Abusive, abrupt, intimidating, overwhelming. Arbitrary and often arrogant in tone.
  • Can produce unrelenting criticism & argument pushing others to give in against their own best judgment.
  • Can be stimulated by the other person’s rage or weakness to push their aggression even further.
  • Tend to be in positions of authority, and use power to exercise this authority.
Understanding Their Behaviour
  • Strong need to prove to themselves, and others, that their view of the world is always right.
  • Tasks to be done seem clear and concrete to them – the way to perform them straightforward and simple
  • Impatient with those who don’t see what to them is plainly there. When resistance to their own plans is perceived or anticipated, impatience tends quickly to irritation, righteous indignation, or outright anger.
  • They have a strong sense of what others should do; this quality is coupled with the forcefulness and supreme confidence that stem from the very fact that they have done so well at intimidating others ie they do not possess the usual caring, acceptance of others and trust, of other people.
  • Lack of capacity to receive and accept feedback about their impact on others.
  • Their value systems place aggression and confidence so high that they devalue those they believe lack those qualities.
  • They are driven by a need to demonstrate that they are right.
  • They expect others to run from them, and devalue them when they do.
Coping With Hostile Aggressives
  • Avoid open confrontation over who is right or who is to be the winner.
  • Stand up to them without fighting, so that you make genuine and solid contact with them. This will show them immediately that you do not intend to give in.
  • Be aware that the fear and confusion that you feel are natural, even appropriate reactions to being attacked. Expect to feel distraught, angry, or awkward, but do say something of a standing up nature anyway.
  • Give them time to “let off steam”. Look at the person, eye to eye, and wait until they start to lose momentum.
  • Don’t worry about being polite; get in any way you can. If you do see an opening, go for it with a “you’re not going to stand over me”. On the other hand be careful they do not cut across when you are speaking. Always inform them that they have interrupted you.
  • Gain their attention, call them by name, speak loudly and firmly enough to make sure they hear you. Another technique is to do something, like stand up, drop something, look at something else, but be careful that this is not interpreted as an attack.
  • If possible, get them to sit down, and again maintain eye contact to try and build trust. If you are standing up, and they sit down, then you must also sit down. If the person does not sit down, remain
  • standing yourself.
  • State your own opinions and perceptions forcefully rather than telling the other person, signal them that you are expressing your own views, feelings, or perceptions about whatever is being considered.
  • Don’t argue with what the other person says or try to cut him her down. You will just make the situation worse as The Hostile-Aggressive is used to this kind of scenario, and will be more experienced to win the battle.
  • Open battle can be dangerous, as a short term win can turn out to be a long term loss, even if you were right in the first instance.
  • Be ready to be friendly if the other person starts to show any signs of acceptance. These people, once they know they cannot overwhelm you, often now see you as worthy of respect.
  • If you are not alert to this change, you may continue to react with anger that will get in the way of a productive and valuable future relationship.


Email: [email protected]/[email protected]
YouTube: Rachel Khor


Principal Trainer, Peak Success Abundance Sdn Bhd

From Directive Communication International & American Institute of Business Psychology:

– Certification in Colored Brain Communication
– Certification in Human Drive & Motivation
– Certification in Dynamic Speaking
– Certification in Curriculum Development
– PSMB Certified Trainer
– Certification in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)
– Certification in Hypnotherapy from London College of Clinical
Hypnosis (LCCH)
– 18 years corporate training experience

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