Why Are People Difficult?

We often find ourselves saying that someone is awfully difficult to work with, but have you ever asked yourself the question - Why is this so? Individuals usually behave in a difficult manner because they have learned that doing so keeps others off balance and incapable of effective action. Whether brow-beating others into submission or avoiding distress by sitting on a decision,

OK, and that they are largely unaware of the long-term costs of what they do is incidental to the fact that they put you at a disadvantage.

Problems With Difficult People

We encounter difficult people often. They are the hostile customers and co-workers, the indecisive, up/down bosses and the over-agreeable subordinates of the world who are constant headaches to work with. Although their numbers are small, their impact is large. They are responsible for absenteeism, significant losses in productivity and lost customers or clients. They frustrate and demoralize those unlucky enough to have to work with them and they are difficult to understand. They usually appear immune to all the usual methods of communication and persuasion designed to convince them or help them to change their ways.

A difficult person’s troublesome behaviour is habitual and affects most of the people with whom he or she comes in contact. Difficult people are seen as problems by most of the people around them, not just those who are incompetent, overly sensitive or weak.

Why Coping Is Important For Effective Communication

Coping means “to contend on equal terms”. Effective coping is the sum of those actions that you can take to correct the power balance, to minimise the impact of others’ difficult behaviour in the immediate situation in which you find yourself.

It is important to remember what coping is not. Coping is neither accepting people as they are (and long-suffering the consequences) nor is it trying to change a set of attitudes, values and in-built behaviour that is part of a person’s personality.

Acceptance, while it avoids the unpleasantness of confrontation, is attained at the double cost to the individual trying to cope - a feeling of martyrdom (I’ll bear the brunt of this difficult person) in the
acceptance and reinforcement of the behaviour in The Difficult Person.

Trying to change another person’s personality, on the other hand, can be extremely difficult and expensive in terms of time, effort and money, particularly when the person trying to make the change is The Difficult Person’s manager.

Coping, on the other hand enables you and the Difficult Person to get on with the business at hand. If you are able to cope effectively, you will be disrupting The “successful” functioning of the difficult behaviour. When the behaviour strategies of The Difficult Person don’t work, when you respond in ways different from those expected, you are able to get about your business and The Difficult Person is provided with an incentive, and an opportunity to develop other, more constructive behaviour.

The coping methods to be described below are not designed to be manipulative in a negative way. They are not designed to use people’s motives against them, or to be sneaky or underhanded. They do not require that your intentions, and the actions you take to implement those intentions, be designed to further your own interests at the other person’s expense.

The intended purpose of coping, rather, is to balance the power Difficult People can have over you, and to further mutual interests by producing a situation in which you can both function as productively as possible.
The Seven Most Recognised Types Of Difficult People

Do you recognise or know or work with any of these people?

1.  The Hostile - Aggressive. These are the people who try to bully and overwhelm by bombarding others, making cutting remarks, or throwing tantrums when things don’t go the way they are certain things should.

2.  Complainers. Complainers are individuals who gripe incessantly but who never try to do anything about what they complain about, either because they feel powerless to do so or because they refuse to bear the responsibility.

3. Silent and Unresponsives. These are the people who respond to every question you might have, every plea for help you make, with a yes, a no, or a grunt.

4.  Super-Agreeables. Often very personable, funny, and outgoing individuals, Super-Agreeables are always very reasonable, sincere, and supportive in your presence but don’t produce what they say they will, or act contrary to the way, they have led you to expect.

5.  Negatives. When a project is proposed, The Negatives are bound to object with “It won’t work”, or “It is impossible”. All too often they effectively deflate any optimism you might have.

6.  Know-It-All Experts. These are the “superior” people who believe, and want you to recognise, that you know everything there is to know about anything worth knowing. They’re condescending, imposing (if they really do know what they’re talking about), or pompous (if they don’t), and they will likely make you feel like an idiot.

7.  Indecisives. Those who put off major decisions until the decision is made for them, those who can’t let go of anything until it is perfect - which often means never.


Assess The Situation
Has the person in question usually acted differently in similar situations?
Am I reacting out of proportion to what the situation warrants?
Was there a particular incident that triggered the troublesome behaviour? Will direct, open discussion relieve the situation?

Stop Wishing They Were Different
Blaming people won’t change them. Hoping they change won’t work as well.

Take A Perspective On Their Action
Label their type of behavior. Understand their behaviour

Formulate A Plan For Coping
Use the appropriate coping strategy, and fine tune if for this particular situation. Change your own behavior.

Implement Your Strategy
Choose the right time, when the person is not overburdened with other problems, and make sure you have enough time, and energy, to carry through with your coping plan. Practise your strategy before the confrontation.

Monitor Progress And Modify When Appropriate
Be positive and provide feedback with discretion. Know when to abandon the attempt and keep your distance.


- Bullies, by bombarding, making cutting
   remarks, throwing tantrums.
- Abusive, abrupt, intimidating, overwhelming.
  Arbitrary and often arrogant in tone.
- Can produce unrelenting criticism & argument
  pushing others to give in against their own
  best judgment.
- Can be stimulated by the other person’s rage
  or weakness to push their aggression even further.
- Tend to be in positions of authority, and use power to exercise this

Understanding Their Behaviour
- Strong need to prove to themselves, and others, that their view of the
   world is always right.
- Tasks to be done seem clear  and concrete to them -  the way to perform
   them straightforward and simple
- Impatient with those who don’t see what to them is plainly there. When
   resistance to their own plans is perceived or anticipated, impatience
   tends quickly to irritation, righteous indignation, or outright anger.
- They have a strong sense of what others should do; this quality is
   coupled with the forcefulness and supreme confidence that stem from
   the very fact that they have done so well at intimidating  others ie they
   do not possess the usual caring, acceptance of others and trust, of other
- Lack of capacity to receive and accept feedback about their impact on
- Their value systems place aggression and confidence so high that they
   devalue those they believe lack those qualities.
- They are driven by a need to demonstrate that they are right.
- They expect others to run from them, and devalue them when they do.

Coping With Hostile Aggressives
- Avoid open confrontation over who is right or who is to be the winner.
- Stand up to them without fighting, so that you make genuine and solid
  contact with them. This will show them immediately that you do not
  intend to give in.
- Be aware that the fear and confusion that you feel are natural, even
  appropriate reactions to being attacked. Expect to feel distraught, angry,
  or awkward, but do say something of a standing up nature anyway.
- Give them time to “let off steam”. Look at the person, eye to eye,
  and wait until they start to lose momentum.
- Don’t worry about being polite; get in any way you can. If you do see
  an opening, go for it with a  “you’re not going to stand over me”.
  On the other hand be careful they do not cut across when you are
  speaking. Always inform them that they have interrupted you.
- Gain their attention, call them by name, speak loudly and firmly
  enough to make sure they hear you. Another technique is to do
  something, like stand up, drop something, look at something else,
  but be careful that this is not interpreted as an attack.
- If possible, get them to sit down, and again maintain eye contact to
  try and build trust. If you are standing up, and they sit down, then you
  must also sit down. If the person does not sit down, remain
  standing yourself.
- State your own opinions and perceptions forcefully rather than
  telling the other person, signal them that you are expressing your
  own views, feelings, or perceptions about whatever is
  being considered.
- Don’t argue with what the other person says or try to cut him /
  her down. You will just make the situation worse as The
  Hostile-Aggressive is used to this kind of scenario, and will be more
  experienced to win the battle.
- Open battle can be dangerous, as a short term win can turn out to
  be a long term loss, even if you were right in the first instance.
- Be ready to be friendly if the other person starts to show any signs
  of acceptance. These people, once they know they cannot
  overwhelm you, often now see you as worthy of respect.
- If you are not alert to this change, you may continue to react with
  anger that will get in the way of a productive and valuable
  future relationship.


- Sentences, connected with ands and buts,
  that flow without pause.
- Continued blaming, accusations, and
  putting down of people and ideas
- Find fault with everything, and insinuates
  that “something” should be done, or that
  “someone”  should be doing something
- You find yourself automatically becoming
  defensive with, whether or not you’ve
  done anything wrong
- State problems (that may correctly exist) as convincing accusations

Understanding Their Behaviour
- Often complainers keep their own tension levels under control by
  finding a person with whom their  feelings can be put into words
  and this made more manageable.
- They feel that they are powerless in the management of their own
  lives, as if the cause of all that happens to them lie outside their
  grasp. At the same time they feel that if all goes well it is due to
  good luck or to favours from others. They feel that roadblocks
  and frustrations can only be removed by getting others, the truly
  powerful ones, first to pay heed, and then to take action.
- Because complainers often feel put upon, they often have an
  image of the way things ought to be and a heavy sense of injustice
  that they are not that way.
- Complainers often feel that their behaviour makes them appear
  blameless, innocent, and morally perfect, at least to themselves.
  They feel good by placing the responsibility for problems on
  others, and then let the other person know that they are to blame,
  and should fix things. Therefore they like to assure themselves
  that they are without responsibility.
- After a while, they perceive that nothing is getting done, and
   this just makes things worse for them.

Coping With Complainers
- Break their self-confirming cycle of passivity,  blaming others,
  powerlessness. Insist that a problem-solving perspective be
  taken  towards their complaints.
- Listen attentively to their complaints, even if you feel guilty or
  impatient. Gives them an opportunity to ”let off steam”, can
  lessen their feeling of powerlessness will provide further
  information, and may even conform that a sympathetic ear is all
   that is required.
- Acknowledge and verify what they’re saying by paraphrasing
  and checking out your perception of how they feel about it. Be
  prepared to use a leading question to interrupt the flow of a
  ‘rambling’ complainer. Pinpoint any generalities by asking for
  specific examples.
- Don’t agree with or apologise for their allegations even if, at the
   moment, you accept them as true.
- Avoid a sequence of accusations, defense, re-accusations. This will
  avoid a continuing back and  forth of useless communication, and
  the chances that you will slip into a defense cycle.
- State and acknowledge the facts without comment and apology.
  Let the complainer speak next.
- Try to move to a problem  solving situation by asking specific,
  fact finding questions, or asking the complainer to do something
  that is relevant to the problem. If you can, get your action plan in
  writing, or the test of the complaint itself. Support anything
  constructive that they do to overcome the problem.
- If all these fail, ask the complainer how he or she would like
  the communication to end.


- People who go silent at those times when you need an answer or want some conversation go out of their way to avoid answering direct questions
- When they do respond to a question, it is usually a yes, a no, or a grunt.

Understanding The Behaviour
- Unresponsiveness is a non-committed way of handling potentially
   painful interpersonal situations. It can be a way to hurt or control
   people who want or need communication from them.
- For these people, remaining silent is a way of evading an exposure
  of their own thoughts and feelings. They feel safer to keep the
  words unspoken and skirt a potentially difficult issue.
- We need to be sure of our understanding of the motives of silent
  people, so we need to look for other nonverbal clues to provide more
  insight. This in itself can be quite difficult and sometimes we can be
  quite at a loss to understand what the silence or lack of
  response means.

Coping With Unresponsives
- The major coping task is to get the unresponsive to talk, rather than
   try to interpret what the silence means to encourage these people
   to talk, you must ask “open-ended” questions, questions that
   can not properly be answered with a sin 2le word or a nod.
   With these general questions, good eye contact, and patience,
   it is difficult for the silent person to remain so, but it does require
   considerable effort to do so.
-  Wait as calmly as you can for a response, and make sure your eye
   contact shows interest and friendliness. Your eyes can show that
   you expect an answer, but don’t make it into a “waiting contest”
   for the first person to speak.
-    However be careful not to “fill the space” with your conversation
   or a suggested answer to your own question.
-  If you still get no response, comment on what is happening such
   as: “I thought you would have some ideas on this topic. What
   seems to be the problem?”.
- This open-ended question puts the onus on the other person, while
   you continue your calm and your waiting.
- If still no response, repeat your statement and another open-ended
   question. Be firm about waiting until you get an answer.
- Sometimes a leading question can help to break the tension.
   “You seem to have some conflict over what I have said. What
   seems to be the problem?”.
- If you know ahead of time that you will be dealing with a silent
  person, allot a time limit with them for “arriving at an action plan”,
  or some appropriate objective.
- When this silent person does open up, be attentive and watch your
  own impulse to make a fuss.
- Use all possible means to demonstrate active listening, and keep
  the conversation flowing by asking questions about what they have
  said until you see a chance to bring the discussion back to
  you own topic.
- When the unresponsive remains silent, don’t be overly nice, but
  let them know that they will not be let “off the hook”. Be firm
  in stating that “nothing was resolved”,   but von initiate the end
  of the meeting yourself and indicate your intention to
  raise the subject again.


- These people are always reasonable, sincere,
  and supportive to your face but never
  deliver a promise.
- They seem to be responsive until you need
   some action.
- They always tell you things that are
   satisfying to hear.
- They leave you believing they are in
   agreement with your plans, only to let you
- Outgoing, sociable, personal, friendly
- They may not pay close attention to what
   you’re saying, but they are very
   attentive to you.
- They often use humour as a way to ease a
   conversation, or to send serious messages.

Understanding The Behaviour
- Super- agreeables have an extreme need for personal affirmation.
  They want to be liked or at least accepted by every single person
  all of the time. For this type of person, the catastrophe to be
  prevented or evaded whenever possible is open conflict, with its
  terrifying possibility that acceptance, approval or love
  will be withdrawn.
-These people often make unrealistic commitments, which are
 often made in good faith, when the ‘real’ situation would suffice.
 They often commit themselves to actions on which they
 cannot or will  not follow through.

Coping With Super-Agreeables
- The key  ‘strategy’ here is to reassure the Super-Agreeable so
  that it does not appear to him or her  that there is any conflict
  between “facing up to the bad news” and gaining or retaining
  your approval.
- Ask them to be candid with you, assuring them that their
 honesty’ is non threatening. Make it easier for them to
 speak the truth  by’ making it clear that their criticism
 won’t earn them your displeasure.
- Let them know that you value them as people by telling them
  directly. Ask or remark about their family, hobbies, clothes but
  you must be sincere. This gives them a platform upon which
  they’ can risk straight talk about facts. Be careful of any
  negative nonverbal signs of your own, as Super - Agreeables
  are very sensitive to these things.
- Don’t let them make unrealistic commitments. If you feel this
  is so, ask them how they will achieve this, and tell them of any
  misgivings you may have.
- Be ready to compromise and negotiate if there is any likelihood
  of open conflict. As they tend to be most apprehensive in
  situations in which they are likely to lose the favour of others,
  they are partial to a win/win solution. Do this as early as you
  can so it helps them to relax before tension begins to build
  over the possibility of a conflict.
- If their behaviour is accompanied by humour, listen to it for
  hidden messages. They often use double-edged humour as a
  means of expression. If it works the message has been easy,
  if it doesn’t they can simply say “I was just joking”.


- Responds to any proposal with an explanation
   like “It won’t work”, “It’s no use trying”, or
  “We tried that last year”, “Forget it, they’ll
  never let us do it.”
- Dampen any suggestion regardless of merit,
   and never come up with an alternate
   solution or action plan.

Understanding The Behaviour
- Negatives truly feel disappointed and defeated, and their
  pessimistic comments can easily arouse anger in
  those around them.
- They are not by intention obstructionists to every scheme.
  They really do believe that the blocking forces are out of their,
  or any ordinary person’s control. The negatives they see are
  real and absolute barriers, rather than obstacles that one
  might go around, through, or over.
- They are convinced that they have little power over their
  own lives, or that they have almost no ability to
  influence things.
- They also believe that others in power don’t care or are
  self-serving, their negative statements are made with
  conviction. This leads them to believe that those who have
  power cannot be trusted, or cannot be counted upon to
  act reasonably and consistently.

Coping With Negatives
- Be alert to the potential, in yourself and in others in your
  group, for being dragged down into despair.
- Make optimistic but realistic statements about past
  successes in solving similar problems.
- Don’t try to argue Negative people out of their pessimism.
  They may not be wrong. Instead of confronting the
  Negative directly’, your strategy should be one of showing
  that some alternatives are worth trying, even if the Negative
  may be right that they’ won’t work.
- Don’t rush into proposing solution alternatives yourself
  until the problem has been thoroughly’ discussed. The
  more that an issue is specified, by asking what, where,
  why, and how questions, the more clearly it exists as a
  problem rather than simply as complaint. If you prematurely
  propose a possible way out of the problem, the Negative
  person will do well what he or she does best - explain
  why it won’t work.
- When an alternative solution is being seriously considered,
  quickly raise the question yourself of negative events (or the
  worst consequences if a likely plan were imple¬mented).
  If you quickly ask for the worst scenario, you might happen
  to ease the mind of the negative person who cannot move
  because of the potential “disasters”.
- Be prepared to take appropriate action by yourself, even if
  it means going alone. This can jolt other members of
  the group into action.
- Beware of creating negative responses from highly
  analytical people by asking them to act before they feel ready.


- Those people want you to recognise that they know
  everything there is to know about anything worth knowing.
  They convey a belief in their own superiority that often
  leave others humiliated, imrnobilised and angry.
- Be aware that there are two types, those who do in fact -
   know-it-all, and those who don’t.
- The real know-it-all, are often highly productive, thorough,
  and accurate thinkers, who make competent, careful plans,
  and then carry them through, even when the
  obstacles are great.
- They exude power, authority, certainty and if they do
  know-it-all, leave others feeling inferior. They leave little
  room for any one else’s judgments, creativity,
  or resourceful¬ness.
- When things go wrong, they often see the fault lying
  in others.
- When questioned about their ideas or plans, they throw
  out a lot of detailed facts and logical arguments.
- For those who really don’t know-it-all, you recognise
  them as ‘instant experts’ based on acquiring a little
  knowledge, but falling short on detail. These people
  really believe that they know what they’re talking about.

Understanding The Behaviour
- Know-it-alls believe that they’ alone have the power to
  affect their own lives, and they tend to see the ideas and
  formulations of others as irrelevant to their own purposes.
- They cannot tolerate uncertainty and strive even harder
  to impose their own order on everything they can.
- They are secure in the possession of tightly held
  knowledge and resent attack on the accuracy of that
  knowledge. When their plans look like falling apart,
  their first line of defense is the ineptitude of others.
- They are used to having their own way, through praise
  if correct, and blame if they are incorrect. This means
  that they have developed a sense of their own ability
  to affect things by careful planning and follow-through
  which has been accompanied by a belief that if good
  or bad things happen, they, not fate or luck, are the cause.
- Those know-it-alls who don’t really’ know, have the
  same traits, but camouflage their non-knowledge by
  acting like the expert. They want to be seen to be in
  control, to be admired and respected, and are often only
  partially aware that they are speaking beyond
  their knowledge.

Coping With Know-It-Alls
- The central strategy in coping with these ‘Bulldozers’ is
   to get them to consider alternate views while carefully
   avoiding direct challenges to their expertise, lest they
   take your recommendations as personal attacks on them.
- Make sure you have done a thorough job of preparing
  yourself; carefully review all pertinent materials and
  check them for accuracy.
- Listen carefully and verify the main points of their
  proposals, thus avoiding the flood of words that
  may continue from them.
- Avoid making dogmatic statements that can be challenged.
- If you must disagree, be tentative but don’t “sit on
  the fence”. To act in this way, question firm]y to bring
  up issues or errors rather than make authoritative
  statements, and above all, do not confront this person.
- Be precise with words when putting your case.
- Present alternatives as a detour, but use facts and logic.
- Watch your own tendencies to counter by’ being an
  expert yourself. Listen to yourself, acknowledge their
  competence, and use time as a resource for thinking things
  over. You may need to let them be the expert and build
  the relationship from there.
- If you do have an ignorant know-it-all you will need to
  state the facts or alternate opinions as descriptively
  as possible, but provide the other person with
  a chance to save face.
- Cope with these types alone, whenever possible.



- They stall any major decision until it’s made
  for them and refuse to let go anything until
  its perfect - which sometimes means never.
- They simply cannot make up their own
  mind, and indicate a preference for you to
  make up their mind for them.
- They go out of their way to avoid being
  involved in the decision making process.
  They involve you in discussion but delay in telling you of their position.

Understanding Their Behaviour
- Mostly indecisive people are genuinely motivated to be helpful, but don’t
  like the potential of bringing disappointment or distress to someone
  in making an important decision, and these people don’t want to hurt anyone.
-  They prefer to just go with the flow.
-  They are people pleaser at their core.
-  They solicit pretty much everyone’s opinion before figuring
   out their own.
-  To them, big decisions are mentally exhausting.
-  They will agonize their decisions long after everyone has made theirs.
-  Pro-con lists are their best friends.
-  They are highly sensitive and reflective so they are terrified of making
    the wrong decisions.
-  Even choosing where to go for dinner can be a chore.

One approach to pushing past a stuck spot is to ask strategic questions that’ll ultimately help your boss clarify the next step. If you inquire as though you’re trying to elicit information to help you do your job, your supervisor will have a hard time leaving you hanging. The questions you pose will vary by your industry and the specific project, of course, but the broad examples below will give you an idea for how to get started: