Dealing with Difficult Personalities – What Not to Do

difficult-personalitiesHow should we deal with difficult personalities?  I have been thinking about how to write about this topic for three weeks now.  I realized it’s hard, because there are so many potential dimensions and scenarios to this question:

  1. Who is this person that you consider “difficult” – a senior executive, boss, peer, colleague, customer, vendor, or support staff?
  2. What is your definition of “difficult” – does this person appear elusive, rude, incompetent, belligerent, passive aggressive, unreliable, back-stabbing, etc..?
  3. What do you need to accomplish with this person, but it’s been “difficult” – are you trying to get information, delegate work, reach a common goal, get a buy-in, etc…?
  4. What could you accomplish if this person stopped being “difficult” – would you get more done, have less stress, feel happier at work, etc.?
  5. What are the risks to your job if this person continues to be “difficult” towards you – tense work environment, slow work progress, cannot work around them, etc?
  6. Does this person seem “difficult” to everyone, or just you?

I decided to use one of my past experiences with a “difficult personality” to illustrate how we can deal with these types of situations.  At my last job, I had to work well with a lot of cross functional colleagues in order to get information and achieve results.  I remember the first meeting I had with a new colleague (let’s call her Anna).  Anna is a data team lead who provided invaluable data analysis for my projects.  She had a great reputation for being smart and excellent at her job.  I also met her casually in the hallway, and thought she was quite nice.

The goal of my first meeting with Anna was to discuss the first piece of analysis where I needed her help. I began with context and quickly launched into my request. That’s where she cut my off and began to pepper me with questions about why I needed this data and what I planned to use it for. Her tone was sharp and aggressive. I felt like I was on trial, and that if I gave her the wrong answers she would not help. I was definitely caught off guard.

What would you do in this situation?   Given “difficult personalities” tend to illicit an immediate emotional reaction from all of us, I want to first start with advice on 4 dont’s – 4 things we instinctively want to do, but shouldn’t.  Remember: the goal of dealing with difficult personalities is to somehow make the situation no longer difficult so you can have lower stress, accomplish more, and build solid relationships.

  • Don’t react emotionally or defensively – It’s natural to immediately feel frustrated, irritated, or even angry when we perceive that someone is being “difficult” at work; instinctually, we may want to be equally “difficult” in return (e.g. yell back, argue, give up). These are emotional responses that make us human, but they will not help the situation at all and may make it worse. In my case, I could have instinctively responded defensively; I could have responded in a sharp tone, but would that really get me anywhere?
  • Don’t try to change this person –Another natural reaction is to immediately formulate an opinion of what’s wrong with this person that is “difficult” person and how he or she needs to change.  I could, for example, stop Anna and point out to her that her tone is quite sharp and I don’t appreciate it.  I may be right, but how would you feel if you were Anna and I said that to you?  Another bad path to take.  Remember the adage – “we cannot change others.”  We can only change ourselves and our reaction to others if we want to affect change.   No one changes just because we want them to, so approaching this situation with the attitude of “they must change” is fruitless.
  • Don’t complain to this person’s boss to try to resolve the issue – No one likes a tattle tail.  Bringing in more authority is another ineffective way to affect long-term change.  You may be able to force this person to do something this time because of his or her boss, but you would have damaged the long-term relationship.  If I had immediately went to her boss after the meeting, I would have undermined my own work credibility and wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.
  • Don’t gossip about this situation with other co-workers – Sometimes our instinct is to vent with co-workers to let out frustration, or look for allies to agree with us about this “difficult” person. While this may feel good in the short run, it doesn’t love anything long term. In fact, it would only escalate the problem in our head. Does it really matter if other people find this person “difficult”? If we think so, then we are focused on being right, rather than solving the issue in a way that achieves long term results. Gossiping about Anna after the meeting would have made the situation more serious and more dramatic in my mind. It would have wasted my time, and it wouldn’t have resolved the situation.

Now that I have told you all the things we shouldn’t do, what should we do instead?  Stay tuned for the next article, “5 Effective Tips to Deal with Difficult Personalities,” in order to achieve long term results.

Your comments: Do you agree with the above?  why or why not?  Anything else we should avoid doing in dealing with difficult personalities?   Add your question or comments below and let’s have a discussion.

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I am always in your corner.

– Lei

3 thoughts on “Dealing with Difficult Personalities – What Not to Do”

  1. Hi Lei,

    I am agree with your don’ts, I think approaching to some one should be tactful as per present situation. Knowledge about human behaviour in general can improve the communication skill. How to control emotional reaction is a big deal. Awaiting for your tips. Thanks

  2. Hi Lei, I think this is a good article, but I do have one contention. Your second point on your list of “don’ts” seems somewhat odd. Wouldn’t the result depend as much upon how you approach that kind of conversation, as it does upon what you’re saying? I think our approach would make a huge difference in how they respond, and they might even try to change, especially if they didn’t realize that’s how they were acting.

    1. Ryan, glad you liked the article. I completely agree with your comment that our approach can potentially influence the behavior of the other person. What I mean to say with this point – Don’t try to change this person is if our intention and expectations that they will definitely change based on our approach, then we would be setting ourselves up for frustration. And depending on our approach, we can easily come across judgmental and arrogant. None of us can make anyone else change. It is also not our place to judge as we are not perfect either. It is up to each of us to change our own behaviors and improve ourselves. We cannot assume somehow we know better than the person we are having difficulty with. Thanks again for your comment. Let me know if you want to discuss more 🙂

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