What to do with difficult people

Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

Ugh! It seem like there is always at least one difficult person (DP) in and around our professional or personal vicinity; coworker, colleague, supervisor, board member, soccer mom, family member, friend, neighbor or other. And these people can be in our locality temporarily or permanently. Oh!

“Let’s face it, the world has difficult people in it, and no doubt sometimes you and I are problematic, too. There are bullies, abusers, sociopaths, narcissists, and people who really don’t care about others, the environment or creating a better world. We’ve all met these types of wounded people. Maybe we’ve even been them at some point,” writes Azriel ReShel, author of the article, “The Art of Dealing with Difficult People.”

While some DPs are unaware of their influence; others seem to thrive on creating chaos and dissension. Years ago, the receptionist where I worked would spray Lysol after every customer left the office and then complain. I did not find her to be malicious, but self-absorbed with a germ phobia. However, the supervisor at this same office was known to swear, boss employees around, and be selective about who she liked and didn’t like. I found her to be an office bully.

A study in the American Sociological Review called “Difficult people: Who is perceived to be demanding in personal networks and why are they there?” found that most of the 1,146 participates named at least one DP in their social circle that was difficult or demanding.

So, how do we deal with DPs in the workplace?

Ignoring, avoiding or confronting could be ways to deal with DPs in the workplace, but it depends on the degree of difficultness. Some DP’s are emotionally toxic. Some relationships are challenging, but we endure because we like our jobs. Some DPs are absolute perfectionists, but they make the team look good.

Discrimination and harassment are entirely different ballgames, and need to be addressed with those in power and/or the Human Resources.

Adam Brady, a yoga teacher and author, outlined 7 steps for dealing with difficult people:

1. Use the S.T.O.P Model: STOP your thoughts. TAKE three breaths. OBSERVE sensations in your body. PROCEED with kindness.

2. Understand the four control dramas of DPs: being nice and manipulative; being nasty and manipulative; being aloof and withdrawn; or playing the “poor-me” victim role.

3. Don’t take it personally because “Their reaction and behavior is not about you; it’s about them.”

5. Excuse yourself and walk away from a toxic interaction when you lose your objectivity.

4. Practice defenselessness by choosing not to be an adversary. However, you can state your perspective in a non-threatening way, while acknowledging the DPs point of view.

6. See the experience as an opportunity to continue learning about your own reactions to DPs. “What am I meant to learn in this situation?”

7. Resonate compassion because “Compassion is an attribute of the strong, highly evolved soul who sees opportunities for healing, peace, and love in every situation.”


Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Buddha and Jesus are well-known icons for taking the high road — remaining compassionate and calm. At times, I fall short of this goal and you probably do, too. Humans are complex creatures.

In the article, “Becoming Adept at Dealing with Difficult People and Avoiding Conflict,” Elizabeth Scott declares we need to “work to maintain a sense of humor.” And I agree. Humor can diffuse internal frustration. I confess to putting a dead fly on the desk of the germophobe receptionist to see her reaction. Eek! I’m sure Adam Brady would not have approved.

Focus on the positive qualities of the DP. The office receptionist kept the entire office clean and sanitary; provided each employee with a box of tissues, hand sanitizer, and encouraged us to stay home from work when sick.

How do you deal with difficult people in your family? That’s another article because more room to write is necessary. LOL!


Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio. www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio. www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com.