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How to Deal with Difficult People:
 Bosses – Co-workers – Employees

On this page:
How to Deal with Difficult People

Before a situation at work reaches a point where it explodes into violence, there has been a long build up. Miscommunications, conflicts, escalations and disagreements all go into the stew. The following essay written by Joseph P. Bablonka, Ph.D. can help individuals prevent on the job violence through better communication strategies.


Let’s begin by defining what is meant by a difficult person. By a difficult person, I mean an individual who may fit any of the following descriptions below:

      *  Someone who acts unreasonably.
      *  A person not likely to listen.
      *  An uncooperative person.
      *  Someone not willing to produce what they said they would or, which is
          required of them.
      *  A person requiring a lot of attention in order to maintain a working
      *  Someone who is seemingly incapable of taking directions.
      *  A person who seems unable to say or find any good in anyone or
      *  An individual who is unwilling to work as a team player – despite the
          need to do so.

Perhaps you can think of a number of other similar words or phrases to describe a person you are having trouble with at this time. In summary, let’s just say, I am defining a difficult person as someone that you and probably others, have had, or are having, difficulty maintaining a working relationship with over time.

You are NOT alone
Well, be assured that whatever your title or your position in an organization, at some point in your career you will be confronted with the need to deal with difficult people. Even if you haven’t been in the workforce for a great deal of time, if you haven’t yet found someone you consider difficult to deal with -it’s likely unusual.

The point is, it really doesn’t matter if you are a professional trying to find a way to work more effectively with a team, an employee having trouble with a co-worker, a boss having trouble with an employee or a boss having difficulty with your own boss, difficult people exist at every level of every organization.

The focus of this article will be to give you a few tips that can assist you in trying to deal more effectively with your difficult person. It is not meant to be a solution to every people problem out there – there are far too many variations on that theme - but it will help you to begin the journey toward successfully addressing and resolving your difficult person issue. So let’s begin. Let’s take the first step on this journey. And just what is the first step in resolving a difficult person problem? The first step is to identify exactly what the problem is in the first place.

What IS the problem?
The first step in addressing a problem you have with a difficult person is to ask yourself: What exactly is the problem I am having?

It doesn’t matter if it seems obvious to you or others, you have to ask yourself – why am I having trouble with this person? What is it that they seem to be doing - or not doing - that is causing me aggravation? It’s not enough to say “well they have a bad attitude” or, “they don’t care about anything”, you will need to take it to the level where you can actually identify what the action or behavior is they are or are not doing.

For example, a more behavioral description by a boss might be – “the person is arriving late for work”. A behavioral description by a team member might be “the team member is not completing the assignment he/she was supposed to complete”. The question to be answered is, What is the actual ‘thing’ they are doing or not doing to create this assessment in your mind that they are difficult? Once you have identified what this issue, objective, requirement or behavior seems to be, you have completed the first and essential step of dealing with difficult people.

Focus on THE PROBLEM. The next step is to take the time to separate the problem from the person him or herself. You may ask, “How can that be done?” This person is the problem!” Some people have told me, “You can’t separate the problem from the person!”

Well, if you believe this, you will probably not be able to deal effectively with this person.

The trouble is, that many times, issues that bother us about other people have been bothering us for a very long time. This comes from not dealing with the problem in an appropriate amount of time. When this happens, it is easy to become very upset with a person and lose our objectivity or perspective.

So if you find yourself in that place, you may want to take a look at your perspective in regards to this person before you go any further. If you want to test your objectivity, ask yourself -

      Do I find myself looking for examples of why this person is so difficult?

     Do I take pleasure in describing this person’s inadequacies to others?

     Do I find it difficult to find any good at all, that this person produces?

If any of these statements are true (and there are others) you are in danger of losing your objectivity in dealing with this person and the problem. Before you go any further, it might be wise to find someone you trust and have confidence in to help you assure you have carefully identified the problem and separated it from other “baggage” that might be around. By “baggage” I mean additional and unnecessary issues that really won’t help you resolve this issue.

OK, I’ve Identified the Problem - Now what?
I’m reminded of the joke where the two dogs are chasing the car. One locks on to the bumper of the car with his teeth and the driver, seeing the dog, stops the car. The other dog says to the one who locked on to the bumper, “OK, we caught it, now what are we gonna’ do with it?”So it is with you. Now that you have identified the problem, you have to figure out how best to deal with it.

A Word of Caution. There are a few more very important things to consider before you talk with this person. Before you talk with the actual person you should consider if the following conditions exist:

         - That you might put yourself in any kind of danger by speaking with this person

         - You believe that the problem is one in which a work policy or worse, a law has been compromised or broken.

If either of the above conditions exist, please be sure to include the appropriate authorities in dealing with this issue.

If any of the above applies, this is not the type of concern that should be handled by you alone. In some cases this might mean working with your local company human resource department before you go any further. In other cases it may mean considering legal advice.

How About this person’s position in the organization – does it make a difference?
The answer is definitely YES. Like it or not, whether a boss or a co-worker, you need to decide how the individual’s position in the work hierarchy might affect your talk with this person.

For example, if the person you are about to confront is a boss, consider how presenting this issue to your boss may need to be different than presenting it to a co-worker. If the person is a co-worker, you have to ask yourself if you should simply bring it up in conversation with the person directly, or, if you need to talk with your boss about it first.

As an example, if the person is exhibiting work performance or behavior that might negatively affect you or your team, you might want to consider whether you should discuss it with the boss first. This is a judgment call that you must make. It is not always easy to make this call.

If you have any doubts with how to proceed, consult with a trusted and more experienced person for advice. The company human resource department is usually a good source of assistance in a situation like this. In a represented environment, your union representative is another source you may also wish to consider.

Time to Talk
It is time to talk with the person. While the person’s position in the workplace – if they are your boss or co-worker for example - might affect your comfort level with approaching them on the problem, the point is, you can’t get to first base in resolving this problem if you don’t confront it in some manner.

If you have considered the above issues and you feel you are ready to talk to this person directly, it is time to provide you with a step by step approach that might help you:

In most cases it is best to speak with this person privately.

To start with, indicate that the reason you wanted to talk with this person is to discuss an issue that is a concern to you. Present the issue as objectively as you can and then say why it concerns you. Ask them if they seem to understand what the issue is you just described and why it concerns you. If they don’t, try explaining it again – a little differently then before. When they understand it - it is time to move on to the next step.

Tell the person you’d like to discuss a solution to this issue. Ask them for their ideas on how best to deal with this problem, and suggest some ideas of your own. Ask if they mind if you write their ideas down as they are speaking and then do so. Suggest trying one of the solutions you both agree is a possible solution. Suggest a follow-up date to consider how effective you have both been in resolving this issue.

As I mentioned earlier, one set of steps or one solution that can resolve every issue – does not exist. Each issue and set of circumstances are different and might require yet another approach. However, the above set of steps has been found effective in resolving a number of issues with difficult people. My hope is that you will find some of these ideas helpful in dealing with your difficult person situation.

Joseph P. Bablonka, Ph.D. is a Managing Consultant with JPB Associates, LLC. He has worked in the field of Human Resources and Management Development for over 20 years. He specializes in helping business organizations find solutions to difficult human resource and system interface problems. Dr. Bablonka has worked in law enforcement, mental health and in the corporate business world. In addition to holding a Ph.D in Psychology, he also holds the rank of 6th Dan Tang Soo Do Karate and 5th in Rossi Kun-Tao - a self-defense oriented martial arts system. His advice is presented to assist not only those in the business community who deal with difficult people, but people in general who sometimes find themselves confronting a difficult human resource issue.

Joseph P. Bablonka, Ph.D.

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