Dealing with Difficult People: 3 steps to smoothing the way

Sara Knapp

Post by Sara Knapp, Executive Coach

My son says the difficult people in the world are the ones who don’t give you what you want. Pretty good summary. Sometimes what we want is just a smile. Or a hello. Or help opening the door. Sometimes, we want the benefit of the doubt, the occasional positive acknowledgement, or the freedom to do things the way we want. 

When people don’t give us these things, we often label them as “difficult”. Unless you’re living alone on a mountaintop in Tibet, you’re going to run into one of these “difficult” types every so often. 

The solution is learning how to handle them. Here are various strategies to smooth the way. 

Change your expectations. 
Difficult people behave in ways that don’t align with our expectations. Recognize that you can’t change someone else. Instead, change what you expect of them. When I finally gave up expecting my husband to stop adjusting the thermostat in our house, he went from being “difficult” to being “predictable”. Predictable people are much easier to work with (or around) to get what you want. Try it. See what changes. 

Change the story you tell yourself. 
We’re wired to try to make sense of our experiences. We want to fit them into some kind of map we have of the world that explains how or why things are the way they are. You can decide that the cashier at the coffee shop never smiles or wishes you a good day because she’s “difficult”. Or, you can choose to think she behaves that way because she finds you so darned attractive that she goes mute in your presence! She’s only difficult if that’s the story you tell yourself to explain her behaviour. If you don’t like the label, change the story. Dr. Seuss knew this trick. It worked for the Grinch who stole Christmas, and it can work for you, too. If you can’t change them, influence them. It’s amazing how ice queens and kings start to melt when they feel acknowledged, seen and noticed. 

Acknowledge and Admire.
Even with the most difficult person, there’s invariably something you honestly admire about them. Maybe it’s only that they always have well-shined shoes. Whatever it is, name it. Let them know you see them, and that you acknowledge and admire something about them. 

Do this as often as you genuinely can. Over time, some of their frost will start to melt away. The more likeable, agreeable person that’s in there somewhere will start showing up more often, and the “difficult” one will gradually just fade away.