Difficult people are everywhere. And while we can’t make difficult people disappear (drat!) or whip out the duct tape to silence them, it can be very helpful to have a basic understanding of why they are difficult.

Regardless of your position or title, no matter how fabulous your organizational culture is, and no matter how happy you are at work, it is highly likely that on occasion you will deal with a difficult person.  Perhaps it’s the irate customer who explodes over a mistake, the colleague who is chronically negative, or the employee who complains or lacks follow through. 

The #1 reason difficult people are difficult is that it is working for them.

Their experience has taught them that their difficult behavior gets them what they want. Or, they believe it will get them what they want.  While we cannot make a difficult person not be difficult, we can train them that their difficult behavior is not going to be rewarded by us.

For example, consider the exploder.  The exploder yells and pitches a fit in hope that they will get one or more of the following “rewards,” just to name a few:

  • Others are upset and the difficult person then has power or control.
  • Others cave in and give them what they want.
  • Other are intimidated and won’t engage.
  • Others have hurt feelings and the difficult person then has leverage.

Use the approach Eleanor Roosevelt suggests and “train other people how to treat you.” If you decide to stop rewarding the difficult person by calmly standing your ground, not caving in or becoming overly emotional, the difficult person will learn that while their difficult behavior might work with others, it does not work with you.  

Whenever you are dealing with a difficult person, ask yourself, “What reward are they looking for and how can I assertively deny them that reward?”

Remember, you cannot make a difficult person not be difficult. You can train them to recognize their difficult behavior does not work with you.

For more resources and tips to handle difficult people, check out these “on-demand” webinars.

Pamela Jett is a communication skills and leadership expert who knows that words matter! In her keynote presentations, workshops, books and online learning programs, she moves beyond communication theory into practical strategies that can be implemented immediately to create the kind of leadership, teamwork, and employee engagement results her clients want.