Dealing with Difficult People

Every now and then you come across someone who makes life really difficult. They take up more of your time than you’d like, and are responsible for creating an inordinate amount of stress and anxiety in your world.

How do you deal with these “difficult” people? It isn’t easy.

A useful starting point is to ask “What’s going on for me here?” By taking the time to step back and “self-reflect” you will often gain insights that allow you to make better decisions and take action to better manage the situation.

Social Psychologist Sherrod Miller offers a great framework for self-reflection. Miller suggests that our experience of a situation is made up of five different types of information which are distinct, yet interconnected:

  1. Sensory Data (what we see, hear etc)
  2. Thoughts (the stories we tell ourselves)
  3. Emotions
  4. Wants / Motivations
  5. Actions (past and present)

By exploring each of these “windows” we can start to see through the fog and make better choices for the future.

Using this framework is definitely not a linear process – it’s more like a pinball machine. You need to ask yourself a series of questions about each of the windows to try and explore what’s really going on for you. Writing down your thoughts is useful and jumping back and forth between the windows will help you gain clarity. Sensory Data Being clear about your “data” is important to making sense of the situation. Consider:

  • What is it that you’ve seen or heard that’s relevant to how you’re feeling?
  • What is it that the difficult person has said or done (or not said or done) that has or is impacting you?
  • What are other people saying or doing that has or is affecting you?


Our thoughts are shaped by a whole lot more than just the data. It may be that your values, needs or sense of identity is being challenged, threatened or undermined by the difficult person. This will shape what you are thinking. It is useful to pause and consider:

  • What are you thinking about the difficult person and the situation? (E.g. Fred is a pain; this is unfair etc.)
  • Which of your values or needs are being threatened or compromised? (E.g Fred is not treating me fairly, what he wants will compromise what we need etc.)
  • Is there an aspect of your sense of identity that is being threatened or challenged? (E.g. I am the manager here and need to be treated with respect and that’s not happening.)
  • How are your past experiences influencing your thoughts? (E.g. when I tried this previously this happened so this idea won’t work…)

The other thing to ask yourself is what assumptions are you making in regard to the difficult person’s intent / motivation? We all have a tendency to infer bad intent and it’s often useful to recognise that your assumptions may not be correct. They might not actually be trying to hurt you.


Many people don’t like to delve into their emotions (particularly men) but the research makes it clear that acknowledging and understanding emotions is helpful when navigating challenging relationships. Ask yourself:

  • How am I feeling?
  • What’s making me feel this way?  (Data? Thoughts? Motivations?)

It’s sometimes useful to refer to a list of emotions to help you understand how you are feeling: are you happy, sad, confused, disappointed, angry, contented etc. As you articulate your emotions it is often helpful to think about your data – what’s happened that’s caused you to feel that way? We often dress up our actions as rational thinking, but the truth is our emotional state drives our behaviour, so pausing to reflect on your emotions can allow you to calm down and modify your actions.


This is perhaps the most important window in your self-reflection. What do you really want? What are the things that are really important to you? If the long term relationship is really important, then don’t do something that’s going to muck it up. For example, as a parent, having kids who tidy up their room is nice, but having a strong long term relationship with them is nicer! Recognising this can change your behaviour.

When reflecting about what you want, think systemically. Broaden your reflection to consider the whole of the system you find yourself in. What do you want for the business or organisation? What do you want for the difficult person? What do you want for other stakeholders such as your team, your colleagues or your customers? Getting clarity around what you want more broadly can modify your thoughts, emotions and choice of behaviour. For example, you, your child and your family might all benefit if you choose to accept that you have an untidy kid and get on with life.


The final window in Miller’s framework is actions. When reflecting on actions you need to consider the past, the present, and of course the future. After all, the reason we self-reflect is ultimately about shaping the future. When thinking about the situation it is useful to ask yourself what you’ve done historically or are doing currently to contribute to the situation. You need to consider that maybe your lack of action has contributed to the current situation and the way the difficult person has behaved. Recognising that you’ve contributed to the situation and that your past actions (or inactions) haven’t helped can lead you to make better decisions moving forward. For example, providing someone with more regular feedback about their performance might result in them changing the way they do things and all of a sudden they might seem less difficult…

The take-away

Self-Reflection will often help you work out how to deal with difficult people. Sometimes you may realise that you just have to get on with life and modify your own behaviour to make the best of the situation. There will be other times though when your reflection will lead you to realise that you need to better engage with and influence the difficult person. That involves getting into their heads. We’ll talk about how to do that next time.



Mark Rosenberg