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Bar News - February 8, 2008

Ways to Deal with Difficult People


They can make the sunniest of days seem gloomy….

On the nonprofit board where I served, Joyce whined; she complained.  She was negative about every idea anyone brought up, or so it seemed.  “We’ve already tried that and it won’t work.”  I was the board chair and she annoyed me with her constant contrariness, but I worked hard not to react to her with anger and frustration.  Instead, I worked to draw out the participation of other board members.    


Away from the meetings and board work, however, I ranted and raved to anyone who would listen about how difficult she was – but this non-productive exercise left me feeling frustrated and a little disgusted with myself. 


Then I found a way to cope.  After reflection, I realized two things and focused on them.  First, while she was a negative voice, Joyce was also a contributor who worked hard and she had given a lot of her time and energy for a very long time.  Second, I cultivated compassion for Joyce by wondering what conditions in her life led her to be so negative.  My strategy wasn’t perfect, but it did help improve my patience and helped me manage Joyce’s negativity more effectively so that our nonprofit venture moved forward a bit more smoothly.


Tips for dealing with “prickly people”….


We’ve all had to deal with them: those difficult people in our lives.  They might be colleagues, clients, family members, children, neighbors.  Perhaps you have such a person in your life right now—a client, a colleague, a boss.  And they can get us to make ourselves miserable—for it is how we respond to them that creates our misery.  


Here are a few pointers on dealing with these “prickly people.”


Assess the impact of his or her behavior.  If it is merely annoying, the consequences may not be great.  However, if the behavior of that person has a significantly negative effect on workplace culture, or a detrimental impact on your work (or someone else’s), or on your reputation or productivity, the consequences may be serious. 


Consider your own behavior.  Are you quite sure you are acting appropriately?  Are there any changes you could make that would help to neutralize the situation?  At the end of the day, the only person whose behavior you may be able to control is your own, so that’s a good place to start. 


Observe your reaction(s).  Are you over-reacting, devoting a lot more time or energy to this person than necessary—time and energy that could be more productively directed elsewhere?  To a considerable extent, your reaction is under your control.  Are you investing time in reacting to or complaining about this person without doing anything to resolve the issue?


Strive to be objective.  Don’t take the situation personally, even if it is personal.  The more objective you can be, the better choices you can make about how you will respond.


Seek another point of view. Calling upon a trusted third party to explain the situation, and maybe even to moan and complain to a bit can improve your perspective. Someone removed from the situation can provide feedback for your ideas, give you additional ideas, provide a sympathetic ear and even help you determine whether you’re over-reacting,    


Develop a strategy and act upon it.  Don’t underestimate the negative influence a difficult person can have on you or your firm; if that influence is deleterious to your reputation or your work, or that of your colleagues or firm, you must act.  Waiting for the problem to go away may not be wise. 


Identify appropriate channels of action, including direct communication with the difficult person.  Bring a third person along if you must, but talk to the person directly, if that is the chosen course.  Afterwards, if necessary, pursue other channels.


Finally, know that retreat is an option.  If you have done what you can to honestly confront the situation and there is still no positive outcome, if negative consequences continue, you can pursue ways to create distance.  You could avoid the person, avoid work projects with him or her if possible—or as a last resort, leave the situation, (i.e. quit your job or commitment at an appropriate juncture).


Don’t procrastinate


With difficult people it is easy to make the situation worse by avoiding the issue.  Try not to give in to this temptation.  Complaining about the person constantly without taking steps to address the problem contributes to a negative environment and does not promote any resolution.


Dealing with a difficult person in your life will in fact become less difficult the sooner you take on the issue.  Good luck!


Betsy Black, a former attorney and a member of the NH Bar, specializes in working with lawyers seeking greater satisfaction in their work and personal lives. Direct thoughts, questions and requests for future topics for this column to her at or telephone: 603/228-6195.

See other Work-Life Balance articles by Betsy Black, as published in Bar News

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