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Collaborating with Difficult People

Difficult people add spice to life

Credit: Gary Larson

What and who are difficult people?

Difficult people are found in all walks to life within families, workplaces, social groups and friendships. A difficult person is recognizable by their behaviours. Hard to interact with (often interrupting, belittling views of others or talking at you rather than with you), intolerant of differences, negative, drama-seeking and controlling amongst other things. 

There is ample evidence showing us that we cannot change another person, so we will not try. We will instead shift our focus towards learning how to better manage when facing a difficult person. 

Managing difficult people (or situations) is a key soft skill, so let’s look at some helpful techniques to master it.

What skills are needed to collaborate with difficult people?

The skills we need are ones that empower us to remain rational and “in the moment” when confronted. What does “in the moment” mean? It’s being fully present in mind and body. One’s mind isn’t wandering away (as tempting as it might be when facing a difficult situation).

Specific techniques for remaining in control when facing difficult people

  1. Don’t absorb the energy dispersed by difficult people. I use a simple analogy to illustrate this concept. A monkey we each carry, the size of which is determined by how we manage everyday challenges. The “trick” is not allowing another’s monkey to climb onto us – doing so simply weighs us down. By observing rather than absorbing a difficult person’s negative energy, their monkey stays well and truly where it belongs. 
  2. Setting realistic expectations. Assuming you cannot avoid the interaction (because if you can, you will), ask yourself what you expect from the relationship? Constructive outcomes can occur when we avoid assumptions about difficult people. For example: “He’s totally focused on his getting his promotion and couldn’t care less about team success”. Is that really the case or just what you assume? Interactions that dispassionately examine their point of view, using an open and curious mind, are effective. For example: “What do I need to understand about……?” “What would help us to get on the same page to deliver……?” 
  3. Keeping interactions neutral. It is best to avoid arguing or trying to win. The reason quite simply is because difficult people tend not to naturally seek common ground. Interactions free of emotive words, phrases or questions and avoiding personalizing comments are helpful approaches. For example: “I’d like to get all of our concerns on the table so we’re confident we are not missing anything.”

More Useful Softskills

  1. Practicing detachment and compassion. I realize that you might be thinking: Are you serious! How can I have compassion for someone who makes my life difficult? This is possible by remembering that overly critical individuals tend to be self-critical as well. A self-talk example: “I’ve got to get this project over the line, otherwise I will be a total failure”. Such situations call for empathy.
  2. Seeing humour in the situation. If you were a fly on the wall (a great technique to remain objective), you might observe a filter-free person. This can result in a social faux pas or moments with both feet in the mouth (great fodder for comedies). Emotional detachment is essential to see humour and to avoid counter-reactions. Especially when it’s an otherwise charged moment with something inappropriate directed at us. 

Adapting as you go

Keeping a positive frame of mind will help keep you from joining the other person in their negative space and preserve your energy. Look for ways to by-pass a less-than-positive outlook, and you’ll walk away from the conversation feeling better and more successful.

Share your views and ideas on this topic. Sign into the Member Section to engage in the discussion and share your tips and tricks.

Give it a try!


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2 comments on “Collaborating with Difficult People


it is really well written and enlightening


I am happy that the topic connected for you, thank you for your feedback!


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