Dealing with Difficult People Is Easy

Jan 24, 2019

By Pete Leibman

“Pete, whatever you do, stay away from John at all costs. The guy is miserable.”

This was the advice given to me by a colleague on my first day at one of my former jobs, and when I met John for the first time, it was pretty clear how he had developed his reputation. Not only was he unfriendly—he was actually rude. He never smiled, and everything about his body language and communication was a total turnoff. As a result, I, along with everyone else in the company, kept my interactions with him as brief and infrequent as possible.

Several months into my new job, I was in a meeting with several of my colleagues, including John. We were pitching a partnership proposal to a group from a local organization. John had played a large role in what we were presenting, and the person leading the project noted his contribution in front of everyone: “John was the brains behind this project.”

The leader from the organization we were meeting with loved John’s ideas as well. He responded by adding: “John, this is absolutely brilliant. This is the best idea that has been presented to our organization in a while.”

I will always remember what I saw next.

It looked as if John went through instantaneous plastic surgery. Several wrinkles in his face seemed to evaporate, the usual redness in his cheeks seemed to disappear, and he flashed a smile (the first one I had ever seen from him) that could have gotten him a modeling gig with Colgate toothpaste.

This guy was not a bad person. He just needed some genuine appreciation! He had gotten caught up in a vicious cycle of poor confidence leading to a poor attitude leading to poor relationships with other people leading to even poorer confidence. No matter where you work or what you do, you will have to deal with difficult people.

Here are seven secrets for handling them with ease.

  1. Don’t take it personally. In 2009, I was involved in a networking group. One of the women in the group was incredibly abrasive and critical. I later learned that her young daughter had just been diagnosed with cancer. That tragedy did not give her the right to disrespect us, but it made it easier for me to understand why she did. At work, you usually won’t know what’s going on in everyone’s personal life. If someone is difficult, it probably has absolutely nothing to do with you, so don’t take it personally.
  2. Consider your role. Having said that, you might have had something to do with the other person’s poor attitude! As hard as it might be, when someone is critical, you have to listen to what is being said and ignore how it is being said. Did you do something that brought on the reaction? For example, one of my former roommates once lashed out at me when I mistakenly threw out some of his kitchen tools during an overenthusiastic New Year’s Day cleaning session. While I did not like how he discussed this with me, what he was saying was totally accurate. I was 100% wrong throwing out several of his items without asking if he still wanted them. Ultimately, I was the cause of his reaction, and I took accountability by agreeing to replace the items.
  3. Fight fire with water. If someone lashes out at you, it’s very tempting to fire back. However, that will only make the situation worse. Always keep your cool and stay calm, no matter how hard that might be. If necessary, excuse yourself for a few minutes and get some fresh air. Let the other person vent, and choose your words very carefully when you respond. You will be amazed at how people calm down when you hear them out and consider their perspective.
  4. Kill them with kindness. You should never let people walk all over you just for the sake of keeping the peace. However, recognize that difficult people usually just have low self-esteem and are actually crying out for some genuine appreciation. Especially if the person is a subordinate or colleague, consider being a source of encouragement.
  5. Talk it out in person. Never go behind someone’s back because that will only make her even angrier if it gets back to her. I made that mistake once at the start of my career when I tried to get a manager to resolve a dispute I had with a colleague over an account. When she learned that I had spoken about her to my manager, she went nuts. Moreover, do not rely on email or texting to discuss disputes. Talk face-to-face (ideal) or via phone if an in-person meeting is not possible. Discussing a conflict over lunch can also serve to clear the air and help you repair or improve a strained relationship.
  6. Involve other people carefully. If you have failed to settle a dispute, then (and only then) consider bringing in other people to help. Just be certain that the difficult person knows you will be bringing in someone else.
  7. If all else fails, minimize interactions. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you will not be able to improve your relationship with a colleague, boss, or customer. In that case, either eliminate all interaction with the person (I know that’s not possible if the difficult person is your boss!) or minimize the time spent with him as much as possible. Your #1 responsibility is to keep yourself happy. Not everyone at work will like you, especially if you are a young, ambitious employee willing to do dirty work that other employees are not. It’s nice to be liked, but it’s better to be respected. Do great work and carry yourself the right way, and “haters” will always respect you even if they don’t like you out of jealousy.

© 2012 Pete Leibman. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, from I Got My Dream Job and So Can You, by Pete Leibman, published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Pete Leibman networked his way into a job with the NBA’s Washington Wizards when he was only 21 years old and later went on to become their number one salesperson. He is founder of the Dream Job Academy ( and the author of I Got My Dream Job and So Can You (AMACOM).