9 Tips on How to Deal With Difficult People at Work

how to deal with difficult people, characteristics of a difficult person, how to deal with difficult people at work

9 Tips on How to Deal With Difficult People at Work

Often, we can’t avoid meeting difficult people, especially in the workplace. You don’t choose your co-workers; they can have different personalities and behaviours that exist on the spectrum. 

Being difficult doesn’t necessarily mean they have a bad character; it may just be their views on how things should differ from yours. However, this perceived difficulty can greatly affect work relationships and make the work environment toxic for the affected individuals.

To avoid the negative effects of working with difficult people, you’ll need to understand how to deal with difficult people at work. You have to ensure that their behaviour does not affect your well-being. Also, you should be able to seek support when necessary. 

What are the Characteristics of a Difficult Person?

There are several characteristics of a difficult person that you should be able to spot early, in order to deal to understand how to deal with difficult people. The common characteristics of a difficult person include the following: 

  • They have an argumentative nature: People who are difficult to deal with frequently take pleasure in engaging in debates with others and adamantly defend their viewpoint as being the only valid one. They can make it difficult to find common ground and come to agreements. 
  • They rarely take responsibility for their actions: Difficult people tend to shift blame onto others, rarely taking responsibility for their mistakes or problems. 
  • Difficult people usually have anger issues: People who are difficult to deal with may have fragile egos and be prone to outbursts of fury over relatively insignificant matters.
  • They are usually close-minded: Difficult people often have a self-centred perspective and struggle to consider different opinions or perspectives. They may try to control others and dismiss alternative viewpoints.
  • Narcissism: Difficult people may exhibit self-centeredness, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.
  • Sadism and Antagonism: This trait involves deriving pleasure from the suffering of others and may manifest as cruelty or aggression.  Antagonism: Difficult individuals may exhibit hostility, defiance, or a tendency to provoke others.

How Do You Spot a Difficult Person at Work?

Spotting a difficult person can be challenging because everyone has personality types and quirks. However, several key signs and behaviours can help identify a difficult person:

  • Few Connections at Work: If someone has few connections at work or people do not engage with them beyond work-related matters, they might be difficult. On-again-off-again relationships with coworkers can also indicate this.
  • Exhibiting Toxic Traits: Difficult individuals might display toxic traits such as being overly picky, bossy, or engaging in excessive gossip. They may also show extreme jealousy, codependency, or other relationship red flags.
  • Lack of Empathy and Compassion: Difficult people often lack empathy, compassion, or concern for others, appearing callous.

How to Deal With Difficult People at Work

Dealing with difficult people at work can be challenging but essential for a healthy work environment. Here are some approaches on how to deal with difficult people:

#1. Stay Calm During Conflict

It’s crucial to remain calm when dealing with difficult people. Losing temper usually doesn’t help and can escalate the situation. By staying calm, you demonstrate control and gain respect from others. This approach can help to get the attention of the person causing difficulties and may encourage better collaboration. Sometimes, difficult people act out because they’re trying to provoke a reaction. You can often defuse the situation by remaining calm and not giving them the desired reaction.

#2. Understand Their Intentions

Try to understand the person’s motivations and triggers. Rarely do people act difficult for the sake of it; there’s usually an underlying reason for their behaviour. You can better address the situation and foster cooperation by identifying these reasons.  Sometimes, difficult people may be going through a challenging time, and their behaviour reflects that. Listening to them can help discern any underlying issues and allow them to vent 

#3. Get Perspective from Others by Sharing Your Side

Seek advice from colleagues, managers, or friends who may have experienced similar situations. They might offer a different perspective or advice on handling the situation. Articulating your perspective and experiences to the difficult person can make a big difference. Providing context around your situation can sometimes open up channels of empathy and assistance.

#4. Treat Them with Kindness and Respect.

When dealing with difficult people, responding in kind is often tempting. However, it’s often more effective to respond with kindness. Kindness can often diffuse a tense situation and lead to a more positive outcome. This doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to be walked over, but rather that you respond to hostility with patience and understanding. Treat difficult people with kindness and respect, regardless of their behaviour toward you. This approach can help to de-escalate the situation and may even lead to an improvement in their behaviour. This approach lets you control your reactions and prevents the situation from escalating further.

#5. Establish Boundaries

It’s important to establish boundaries with difficult people. Let them know your expectations for how you should be treated, and make it clear that you won’t tolerate disrespectful behaviour. It’s important to communicate your needs clearly and assertively. This can prevent the difficult person from manipulating you or twisting your words. Using “I” statements rather than “you” accusations can help with this.

#6. Ignore Them.

When possible, try to ignore the difficult person. Avoid unnecessary interactions with them, or have a trusted coworker present during interactions to act as a buffer. Implementing these strategies enables you to navigate challenging interactions effectively and maintain a positive work environment. If possible and appropriate, you might ignore or avoid the difficult person. This strategy is particularly useful when dealing with negative people who only seem to bring you down. This is only sometimes feasible, especially if the difficult person is a coworker or family member, but in some situations, it may be the best course of action.

#7. Overcome Your Fear of Conflict

It’s important to stand up for yourself when dealing with difficult people. This doesn’t mean starting conflicts for the sake of it but rather not being afraid to establish boundaries and demand respect. Hence, standing up for yourself and establishing boundaries is necessary. It’s important to ensure you are treated respectfully and not let fear of conflict deter you from advocating for yourself.

#8. Self-Reflection

Understanding why you’re affected by a difficult person can help you determine the best way to handle their behaviour. Self-reflection can provide insight into your reactions and how to manage them effectively. Lastly, remember that you cannot control other people’s actions or attitudes, but you can control your reactions and responses. The more you focus on the difficult person, the more they remain current in your life. Hence, it’s important to stop giving life to misery and focus on positive aspects.

#9. Communicate Your feelings.

Let the difficult person know how their behaviour affects you. Do this calmly and respectfully, and try to agree on positive and supportive actions going forward. Also, try not to take the actions of the difficult people personally. Understand that it’s about them and their behaviour, not about you.

What to Do if You Are a Difficult Person

If you identify with these traits, seeking feedback from others or considering speaking with a mental health professional may be beneficial. They can help you understand how these behaviours developed and how to develop healthier coping skills and behaviours.

A mental health therapist can benefit you if you believe you are difficult or want to address difficult behaviours. They can help understand the underlying causes of challenging behaviours and teach healthier coping skills to replace them. They can also help develop skills that increase stress tolerance and decrease reactivity. Overall, you can change your difficult behaviours by exhibiting warmth and regard for others, even when they don’t feel it, and showing sympathy even when they don’t. Doing this will improve the relationship between you and others at work.


Before categorising someone as difficult, which can be subjective and toxic, you must understand that personality clashes can occur, and not all personalities will match well. Therefore, instead of labelling someone as tough, it may be more helpful to recognize the possibility of personality differences and concentrate on developing strategies for effectively navigating those differences. However, if your co-worker is certainly being difficult, you can use any one of the mentioned strategies on how to deal with difficult people to handle the situation.


How Do You Talk to Someone Who Is Being Difficult?

To address a challenging individual, practice self-awareness, establish boundaries, develop empathy, express yourself confidently, and seek support from a mentor, coach, or therapist. Focus on understanding the reasons behind the individual’s behaviour and identify personal weaknesses or triggers. Develop empathy by putting yourself in the individual’s shoes, using clear and straightforward communication, and seeking guidance from a mentor or therapist. This approach will help you approach the situation with compassion and patience.


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