How to deal with difficult people — without harming your mental health

April 28, 2022 - 15 min read

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What makes someone a difficult person?

How do you spot a difficult person?

How do you not let a difficult person affect you?

How do you deal with a difficult person?

Difficult people at work

When it comes to dealing with difficult people, it can be tough to just “grin and bear it.” A really unpleasant person or interaction can linger in your mind, even when you’re not around them. Suppressing those interactions can start to take its toll on your mental health.

Many times, like at work, we have to be around these difficult people whether we want to or not. There are a few things, though, that we can do to lessen the impact that they have on us. Here’s the lowdown on not-so-nice people, how to spot them, and how to deal with difficult people — both in and out of the workplace.

What makes someone a difficult person?

Everyone has their own personality types and quirks. In and of themselves, personality clashes don’t make for difficult relationships. Usually, what ruins interpersonal relationships is poor communication, a lack of empathy, or criticism. 

Poor communication

They might constantly talk over you, or never pay attention to what you have to say. They might be indirect, passive-aggressive, or really rude. Whatever it is, talking to them is never straightforward. And you never feel good about how the conversation went after you do. Poor communication skills can take a toll on any relationship.

Lack of empathy

Some individuals never seem to care about anyone but themselves. This lack of empathy can make them especially challenging to deal with. They may have trouble understanding other people’s emotions or circumstances. These people often come across as callous and uncaring.

Criticism

Highly critical people can be among the most challenging to be around. It can seem like nothing and no one meets their standards. Unfortunately, the closer you are to a highly critical person, the more their comments sting. This can be particularly upsetting in personal relationships.

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How do you spot a difficult person?

It would be much more convenient if difficult people walked around advertising their unpleasantness. But while they might not wear flashing neon signs, they do give off some clear warnings. Here are 11 ways to recognize a difficult person:

  • They insist on having everything their own way
  • They belittle you or insult you 
  • They leave you out of important conversations
  • They always have an answer for everything
  • They have difficulty with emotional regulation
  • People seem to avoid them
  • They exhibit toxic traits, like being picky, bossy, or gossiping
  • They second-guess everything you say or do
  • Their private and public behavior is inconsistent
  • You don’t feel comfortable around them
  • They exhibit extreme jealousy, codependency, or other red flags in their relationships

Being around difficult people can have an impact on your relationships and on workplace culture. Because their behavior can have such a detrimental effect on your well-being, it’s important to take steps to prevent their behavior from affecting you. Not “letting them get to you,” however, might be easier said than done.

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How do you not let a difficult person affect you?

There’s a saying that when you change, so do others. Working on ourselves first is the surest path to making sure things go the way we want them to. After all, it’s pretty hard for only one person to get into an argument.

With that in mind, the first thing to do when faced with a challenging person is to look inside. Understanding why you’re affected by them can help you determine the best way to handle their behavior.

1. Pay attention to how you react

How does this person’s behavior make you feel? Do you feel frustrated, insulted, or dismissed? Being able to label the feelings helps to pull you out of reactivity mode and into curiosity — a much more productive (and less explosive) space.

2. Stay calm

Even when you’re dealing with a difficult person, it usually doesn’t help to blow up on them. Many times, they’ll use your reaction (justified or unjustified) to recruit support, making you look like you were just “overreacting.”

When you find yourself getting exasperated with someone, start by taking one or more deep breaths. Don’t feel like you have to engage with them right away. It’s perfectly okay to take a step back, regroup, and follow up when you feel more centered.

3. Do your own Inner Work®

Sometimes, people bother us because they remind us of ourselves. If we’re already frustrated — whether with ourselves or because of our own problems — their shortcomings will feel intolerable. 

For me, working with a coach has been immensely helpful in navigating difficult situations. It gives me the opportunity to depersonalize what’s happening and find out if there’s a root conflict that’s unrelated to that person at all. And if the person really is being difficult, it’s nice to have someone validate that too.

How do you deal with a difficult person?

The fact is, in life, we’re always going to encounter difficult people. But when we understand how their behavior and attitudes affect us, we can prepare ourselves to deal with them. Here are 8 ways to deal with difficult people:

1. Listen to them

When faced with a challenging person or situation, start by just listening. Look at it as an exercise in curiosity. Try to understand — as much as possible — what they want and why they’re giving you a hard time.

If they’re upset, avoid trying to placate them or shut them down. Telling someone to “calm down” usually has the opposite effect — especially if they think you’re not too fond of them.

2. Get into their shoes

From there, try to imagine things from their point of view. If you were this person, and you were behaving in this way, what would justify your behavior? What would have to be happening to convince you that you were right? That may give you insight into how the other person feels.

Looking at things from their perspective doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to agree with them. But it will help you develop compassion for them. Once you develop a bit of empathy for them, you open the way to communicating with compassion and respect.

3. Honor both of your needs

Many people take a dim view of compromise, feeling that when people seek a middle ground, no one gets what they want. However, that is the least fulfilling version of compromise. 

What works better — and feels a little more satisfying — is to come to an agreement that honors both of your needs. Find a way (if you have to spend time around each other) that you can do so with respect. Even if that person doesn’t change their ways, they can become a little more pleasant to deal with. Mutual understanding (and some boundary-setting) can help accomplish that.

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4. Use humor

Sometimes, we get into difficult conversations because we take things too seriously. If you’re in conflict with another person, using (appropriate) humor can help diffuse tension. Cracking a joke — or even a smile — can help lower the stakes. It can remind you of shared common ground and even shift you into a more collaborative mood.

5. Practice

If you’re a little conflict-avoidant, you may be hesitant to even get into conversations with difficult people. If that’s the case, try practicing what you want to say first. Coaching sessions are a helpful space to run through conversations with different personas. You can try having the intended conversation, recapping previous exchanges, or talking through different resolutions.

6. When all else fails, eject

If you ever find yourself stuck dealing with someone you really can’t stand, get out of there. Sometimes it’s just not worth engaging. When our feelings are involved, we often feel drawn into the exchange. We’re so absorbed that we forget we can just leave. 

Years ago, I heard some advice from a sales trainer. He said that if the reps were ever on a sales call that was going badly, they should just hang up. He explained that a swift disconnection could be glossed over as “tech issues.” It would be much harder to unsay anything that you might regret after a moment’s reflection.

The same is true for difficult people. If you’re having a hard time dealing with them, hang up (log off, walk away, or whatever applies). Even if you’re talking face-to-face, you can find a way to leave. Invent an emergency or important phone call, and offer to pick up the conversation later.

7. Create a buffer

Set limits on the amount of time you spend engaging with emotional vampires and other difficult types. If you have to meet with them, do it in a neutral space, connect virtually, or schedule something directly after so they don’t take up much of your time.

If you can, try not to interact with them alone. Bring a friend, colleague, or another person to help buffer your interactions with them. If you start getting upset or the situation starts to go south, this person can help you eject before things get too rough.

8. Practice self-care

Being around difficult people — even if everything looks calm on the surface — is emotionally exhausting. If you’re going to deal with it on a regular basis (for example, as a caregiver or in other relationships), you need to be sure to refill your cup. Inner Work® can give you some distance and perspective as you reflect. 

It’s also important, though, to practice other kinds of self-care. Ensuring that you feel physically and mentally cared for will help you feel more emotionally resilient, as well.

Difficult people at work

Dealing with difficult people can be hard enough, but dealing with a difficult coworker can ruin your day. We spend so much time at work that negative people can really take a toll on our sense of belonging, psychological safety, and productivity.

As much as possible, try to limit your interactions with difficult people at work. Whenever possible (or appropriate), loop in a third party on difficult conversations. Try to keep your body language neutral when dealing with coworkers, since carrying around additional tension will likely make the whole interaction feel more strained.

If it’s someone that you have to deal with, like a manager, try to keep your one-on-ones brief and to the point. Remember that you have a common interest — in this case, getting the work done.

When to escalate a conflict to HR

While it’s to be expected that you won’t get along with everyone at work all the time, there are certain situations that should be handled by human resources. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your manager, leader, or administrative team if a situation feels like it’s getting out of control.

You should escalate conflicts with coworkers to HR when they involve:

  • Bullying
  • Harassment
  • Inappropriate sexual conduct or advances
  • Threats against you, your family, or your livelihood 
  • Other coworkers
  • Violations of discrimination, disability, equal employment, or equal pay laws

In any of these instances, please contact human resources right away. Refrain from engaging with that coworker if you don’t feel safe.

Final thoughts

No one looks forward to interacting with difficult people, but it doesn’t have to ruin your day, week, or workplace. While there’s often not much we can do to change their behavior, we can change our own responses and minimize how they affect us. 

We can also learn to become more open to conversation and conflict, since not all conflict is inherently bad. Learning how to have difficult conversations and embracing productive conflict can help you feel more confident. And who knows? You might make a friend in an unlikely place.

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Published April 28, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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