Useful tips for dealing with difficult people by Melissa Grainger

Our lovely friend, Melissa Grainger, who is the Director at Inspire Affect Ltd and a communication expert, has kindly shared some of her expertise and insights into dealing with difficult people. Read on to see what she has to say... 

As we all know, the world is full of wonderful people doing great things, but there are also difficult people who can be a real pain in the butt! As assistants you deal with so many different people every single day, it’s probably fair to say that you have to deal with your fair share of these ‘pain in the butt’ types on a regular basis unfortunately.

We’ve all had to deal with an angry, stubborn, fussy, over-the-top, rude, or just plain annoying person at work at some point, and unfortunately not only can we not avoid them, we have to work with them on a regular basis.

How many times have you had to deal with the ‘change my mind about what I want a hundred times’ person, the ‘I’m going to give you things to do that I just don’t want to do myself ’ person, the ‘extremely fussy and criticises all your work’ person, the ‘blame everyone else for my mistakes’ person, the ‘constantly complaining about everyone and everything’ person or the ‘it doesn’t matter what you do, you can never make them happy’ person? No matter what the situation is, where you work, whoever you work with, there will always be difficult people to deal with somewhere along the line. Whether it’s your boss, colleagues, peers or your customers, at times you’re going to have natural conflict with the people around you for one very simple reason… we’re all a little bit different!

This is both a blessing, and a curse. It’s great that we’re all different, and we all bring different strengths, unique ideas, and values to the table and that’s what helps the world go round – great! But along with this, we also bring different priorities, annoying habits, and ways of working to the table and that’s what often causes conflict in most team environments - from small to medium businesses all the way to Fortune 500 Companies.

We all have to deal with people who are different to us (who we often perceive as ‘difficult’) and what really defines us in this world of business, is how well (or not) we deal with them. So when you’re dealing with difficult people at work, rather than lose the plot and sink to their level, why not equip yourself with the skills to reduce the pain of dealing with them?

Throughout my career (from call centre management, customer service, personal assistant roles and team leadership management) here are some useful tips that I’ve picked up along the way and have found incredibly helpful for dealing with difficult people at work…

1.      Protect yourself
Whether they are being a little annoying, fairly difficult, or down-right psycho, it’s important to realise that deep down – it’s not really about you, it’s about them. Their emotions and reactions are a result of their own life, their own stresses, and their own struggles, you are merely the outlet for their pain (which isn’t fair but it’s the truth). If someone goes off at you (even if you did do something wrong), the way in which they handle the situation, the way that they communicate with you, that’s all up to them. Remember to protect yourself in the moment and reassure yourself that what’s going on is more about them than whatever it is that you did or didn’t do. You can’t control what they are going to say or the way they act, all you can control is your own thoughts and your own reactions to the situation. Which brings me to my next point.

2.      Set the right example - treat them with respect
As tempting as it may be to lower yourself to their level, don’t do it! Set the right example, be the bigger person and treat them with the same respect you want to be treated with. You may not be responsible for their actions, but you sure are responsible for your own. Being the ‘bigger person’ is hard, but it will always leave you with a clean reputation.

3.      Look for the good in everyone
If it’s a colleague of yours who is being difficult, try to remind yourself of all the positive things about who they are (you might have to dig deep here!). What are some of the awesome things that they bring to the table, rather than just focusing on what frustrates you about them. Or if it’s someone you hardly know, try to find something (anything) that you like about them and it will help make them a little less painful to deal with.

4.      Think about where they’re coming from and respond appropriately
In order to reduce the pain of dealing with difficult people, one of the best things to do is to try to understand their intentions (where they’re coming from) and then respond in a way in which they understand and appreciate. Try to ‘speak their language’ and deal with them the way they want to be dealt with because that’s more likely to get you a positive result.

On the topic of ‘speaking their language’ and us all being a little different, it’s important to note here that we all have different / preferred styles of communicating with each other. One of the skill-sets I coach clients in is understanding the four very different ways that people communicate.

What I mean here is there are four different styles of communication (the four coloured DOTS – Purple, Yellow, Red, and Blue) and you have a fraction of all four in your communication style, but you are more dominant in one than the other three.

So there is one natural style of communication that you use most of the time when speaking to people, it comes natural to you, so you use it, and it colours all of your conversations with others.

So when you’re speaking to someone…

  • If you’re dominant in Purple you’re more likely to talk rather than listen.
  • If you’re dominant in Yellow you process words into complex pictures inside your head in order to interpret what someone is saying.
  • If you’re dominant in Red you won’t talk much, but when you do it will be in short sharp bursts (like bullet points).
  • If you’re dominant in Blue you’ll talk more if you feel comfortable with the person you’re speaking to.

As you can see, each style is quite unique, so when it comes to dealing with difficult people, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from (what their preferred communication style is) and how to speak ‘their language’. This is a valuable life skill to learn and something not enough people do.

The last piece of advice I would give you on this topic is probably the most important of all, and that is to be the person who makes their day better (not worse).

In the moment it can be quite easy to react angrily or snap at someone who is being difficult, but you’ve got think about the bigger picture here.

Most of the time you have no idea what else is going on for them in their life, at home, at work, they could be going through hell… you don’t know, and so you’ve got to ask yourself the question - would you rather be the person who turns their day around, or the person who tips them to breaking point?

As easy as it is to snap back at difficult people, try to resist the urge, find your inner strength and deal with them in a positive manner in order to help make their day a little brighter – trust me, you’ll feel a lot better for it.

If you’ve found this advice helpful please make someone else’s’ life a little easier and share this article with them.


If you'd like to contact Melissa directly with any questions or to enquire about her communications training, here are her contact details:

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