Personal Development

6 steps to dealing with difficult people

To become effective with difficult people, I suggest that we turn to the wisdom of Albert Einstein, who said, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.”

This means that in order to deal with those stubborn, resistant individuals, we must become more aware of three things: the “what,” or the real problem here, the “why,” or science behind interpersonal conflict, and the “how,” or how we, as leaders, can become more influential in these conversations.

The “What”

Rather than seeing the difficult person as making us feel one thing or another, I suggest that we become aware of the cycle that is created when we become triggered by a difficult person. In other words, when we become angry, frustrated, or annoyed, have you noticed that this often results in the difficult person becoming more difficult? This triggers another round of frustration in us that they interpret as criticism, and a cycle of resistance and resentment is born and exacerbated.

The “Why”

To explain why this is so common, let’s turn to the latest neuroscience, which tells us that our middle brain, or limbic system is interpreting the difficult person as dangerous, and throwing us into the part of the brain designed to deal with danger (the lower 20% of the brain, or the brainstem). This triggers our stress, frustration, and anger, which then results in our becoming less effective and then becoming even more defensive.


The ”How”

In order to break this cycle and create a solution-focused conversation, I have created a process that I call the six blocks or obstacles to effective communication and influence, and an antidote to each.

Block #1. Our state of mind

If we are stuck in this lower, reactive brain feeling stressed, angry, or annoyed, we are blocking access to the skills and wisdom needed to deal effectively with difficult people.  These more effective qualities of clarity, confidence, creativity and interpersonal skills reside in the upper 80% of the brain (the neocortex, or what I call the “Top of the Mind”).

The antidote

Be clear about what you want to bring to the conversation. In other words, identify the qualities and characteristics that you know are necessary to resolving conflict (a level head, a curious mindset, etc.) and take 100% responsibility for bringing these to life. If we don’t want to give difficult people the power to “make us” feel or think one thing or another, we must take on that power ourselves, and determine who we want to be in the conversation, regardless of what they do or say.

Or, to put it another way, you never want to tie your peace of mind to another person’s state of mind.

Block #2. Our trying to stop their negative behavior

When we try to convince them to stop being so difficult, they only hear this as criticism, which explains why they often react by defending the very behavior that we want them to change.

The antidote

Be clear about what you want to bring out. Make sure that you have an image of who they are at their best versus only seeing their worst. What do they do well, or what do they love to do? This is who they are when they are in the receptive brain, and this is the part of them that you will want to connect with later in the model.

Block #3. Their belief or concern, i.e., what is important to them

Most difficult people believe that they are right about whatever they think and feel, and their fear is that we won’t listen to them.

The antidote

Listen and learn what is important to them. If you want to be influential with someone, start with what is influencing them. You don’t have to agree with what they are thinking, but until you know how they see the problem, you will not be in a position to do anything about it.

Block #4. Their fear that we don’t get it

The antidote

Empathize so that they no longer need to defend their perspective. This could be as simple as saying, “Okay, I can see how this would be important to you.”  Until we do this, they will be focused on convincing us of their right to think and feel what they think and feel. Remember, understanding doesn’t necessarily mean agreement. 

Block #5. Our tendency to focus on the problem and the past

They remember the problem one way while you remember it another. Unfortunately, this only produces a debate about “who’s right” and exacerbates the cycle.

The antidote

Ask a future-oriented, solution-focused question that blends what’s important to them with what’s important to you. One way to think about this is, what do you want them to do differently and how will this fit with what is important to them?

Block # 6. Going to problem-solving too soon

If we go to problem-solving before someone has shifted from the resistant brain to the receptive brain, they will not hear our solution as valuable, even if it is a great solution.

The antidote

Wait until they respond positively to the solution-focused question in the antidote to Block #5 before you go into problem-solving.

Easier said than done? Absolutely! However, until we learn the neuroscience of conflict resolution, and raise our awareness of the what, the why, and the how with respect to dealing with difficult people, we will remain stuck in the lower brain and the cycle of conflict, making the difficult person the most important person in our life.


Category: Personal Development

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About the Author: Bill Crawford

Dr. Crawford is a licensed psychologist, author of eight books, organizational consultant and Vistage Speaker of the Year for 2019. Over the last 30 years he has created over 3,500 presentations for such organizati

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