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How to Deal With Difficult People

Dealing with difficult people is so, well, difficult! They never listen to logic. They only ever care about their agenda. They’re always trying to circumvent process. It’s so frustrating! Why are they so difficult!?!
But are they really difficult, or is it just your perception of them being difficult because they won’t listen to you? Sure, sometimes there truly are just difficult people that we need to deal with. I’ll get to how to handle them in a second. But most of the time it’s just our perception of that they’re difficult, not that they actually are.


Do you perceive a difficult person to be difficult because they’re not listening? The question becomes, “why aren’t they listening?” Are they not listening because they think they’re right (which is what we’re thinking that they’re thinking) or are they not listening because they haven’t felt listened to or had the opportunity to be heard?

A better question would be, “Have we given them the opportunity to be heard? Have we listened?”

In most cases, dealing with difficult people seems difficult because we perceive the other party to be difficult not because they actually are. In my experience, difficult people are only difficult because they feel like they haven’t been given the opportunity to be heard or understood.

How to Deal with Difficult People

So how do you deal with a difficult person who feels like they haven’t been heard?

1. Listen – Well how about hearing them? I know, shocking, right!?! So often we’re so focused on getting something done according to our own agenda that we just blow off the needs of others. We don’t listen to them because we assume that any opposition to our ideas becomes a roadblock to getting the task completed. But if we just humble ourselves enough to listen (I’ve still got tons of work to do here), we could learn a lot. So start, by listening.
2. Don’t Shoot Them Down – Don’t shoot down their ideas, input, or opposition. They’re putting themselves in a vulnerable state by sharing their ideas and thoughts with you. Respect that and actively think about what they’ve told you and ask open ended questions to dig deeper to why they are proposing those thoughts.
3. Seek First to Understand – Try to understand where they are coming from and for God’s sake, DON’T SAY, “I UNDERSTAND.” Most of us say this line with exactly ZERO empathy behind it. We say it to shut the other person up and in fact when most of us say it, we are actually saying, “I DON’T CARE”. Instead, say something like, “Help me to understand what you just said. What did you mean by [insert meaningful piece of information here.]?” This shows that you were listening and engages the other party to open up more.
4. Don’t Get Angry – “Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda. Anger will only fan the flames of the already tense relationship you have with the difficult person. Remain calm.
5. Repeat it Back – Paraphrase back what you heard from the person. The line should go something like, “I’d like to paraphrase back what I think I heard to see if I’m on the same page as you. Let me know if I have this right. So you want to …[insert paraphrtase here]”. This shows the person once again that you were listening and that you value their input enough to seek clarification on it.
6. Say Thank You – Even if you have no intention of using the information or idea or objection that the difficult person has brought up, thank them for bringing it up. Your thank you should look like this: “Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I especially liked the [insert interesting piece here]. I will definitely look at how we can incorporate your feedback where it makes the most sense.” This shows that you value their feedback and insight (even if you don’t) and goes a long way to building bridges in a relationship and creating an ally.

Some of these tips seem unnatural. When you’re dealing with a difficult person, the the fight-flight-freeze part of your brain is going to be activated. When this happens, it’s pretty difficult to remain calm and engage your conscious mind to defuse a situation, but that’s why it’s so important.