Dealing With Difficult People: Alternative Approaches

Note: This is a guest post from Mark Harrison of Effortless Abundance
We all meet ‘difficult’ people. ‘Difficult’ is a subjective term, of course: very few people are considered to be ‘difficult’ by everyone. But from our perspective, we will seem to connect well with some people and less well with others. From time to time, we are bound to come across people we find very difficult to get along with: people we find inflexible, unwilling to think in new ways, or to see things from our point of view.
When trying to deal with difficult people, it is helpful to be aware of a number of mistakes we might make and how to correct them.
Mistake: Assuming we are right
It is natural to believe we are right. Of course, we all think we are doing the right thing. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who claimed that they had deliberately tried to do something that was immoral or ‘bad.’ People will justify their actions in all kinds of ways, and they might even come to believe that their past actions were wrong, but they will never admit that their intentions were less than correct at the time.

Alternative approach: seek first to understand
One of Stephen Covey’s famous ‘habits’ is seek first to understand and then be understood. This simply means trying genuinely to understand the other person’s perspective. What is motivating this person? Why is she behaving like this? We are often so ready to defend or push our own position that we don’t stop to think about other perspectives. Doing so can teach us a lot. Maybe we are wrong; maybe there is something we have not considered.
Sometimes, people we find difficult can reveal uncomfortable but important things about ourselves. ‘Difficult’ people can be our best teachers, if we have the humility and open mindedness to be taught.
In any case, understanding another person puts us in a much better position when it comes to dealing with the situation. We are more informed and any action we take is likely to be more effective.
Mistake: Having unrealistic expectations
William Glasser’s famous Choice theory is built around the core premise that it is impossible to change another person in any way. Even if you held a gun to someone’s head, they would not be compelled to do as you wished. We are all free to choose our own behavior, and this freedom implies that other people cannot be controlled. Of course, many people allow themselves to be influenced, and even manipulated, by others, but this is itself a choice to give away autonomy to some extent.
It is unrealistic to expect other people to dance to our tune. We can use coercion – if we have the power – to influence people, but this will be temporary and limited in effect.
Alternative approach: focusing on what we can change
Steven Covey’s first ‘habit’ is be proactive. This means focusing on what we can change. Covey calls this our ‘circle of influence,’ and this is where we should expend most of our energies. There is another, bigger, circle – the ‘circle of concern’ – containing things we have some interest in, but most of this is beyond our ability to influence. Other people are like the weather – predictable to some extent, but impossible to control. They may be in our ‘circle of concern,’ but they are well outside our ‘circle of influence.’
It is far better to focus on what we can change – ourselves. By shifting our perspective or adapting to the other person’s behavior, we are more likely to achieve success. The old Taoists often used water as an analogy – if flowing water comes across an obstacle, it doesn’t try to move the object but goes around instead. Better find an alternative route – this is the essence of being proactive.
It is important to say that the very idea of ‘dealing with difficult people’ is a bit misconceived. It’s not the ‘difficult people’ we need to deal with, but our own approach.

Mistake: Trying to win an argument
Don’t bother trying to bring someone around to your point of view by the force of an argument. People are not generally rational, and will not respond well to such logical, intellectual approaches. It might be possible to win an argument – if you have a superior ability to use logic or if you are more articulate or forceful in the way you express yourself, for example – but the other party will not thank you for beating them in such a way. In fact, winning an argument like this is more likely to make matters worse. Nobody wants to be beaten and to feel (intellectually) inferior.
Alternative approach: changing by example
When Khrushchev was making a speech denouncing the crimes of Stalin, a heckler shouted out ‘why didn’t you speak up when Stalin was still in power?’ Khrushchev shouted back at the crowd, ‘Who said that?’ Nobody replied, and so Khrushchev simply said, ‘Now you know why.’ A demonstration is much more effective than an argument. When dealing with a difficult person, don’t try to convince with argument – language are slippery and logic is malleable. Action will usually achieve far better results.
People used to say that there is more than one way to skin a rabbit. Being open minded, being flexible and not taking yourself and others too seriously are important attitudes in all areas of life, and no more so than when dealing with difficult people. A wise man once wrote, ‘Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it’ (Lao Tzu).
Visit Mark at and check out his book, Thirty days to Change your Life.
Photo by darkpatator


  1. Hey Mark,
    One thing which helps e a lot is to not look at difficult people as difficult. Because if I do, I than tend to react emotionally and my communication becomes passive aggressive. I think seeing difficult people as normal people, who just need a different approach creates very good results.

  2. Very useful tips for me. Sometimes I have problems speaking with such people. Thanks for this!

  3. The difficult people in our lives typically turn out to be our greatest teachers. I have learned the most about love… acceptance… compassion from the people in my life who have challenged me. It’s not always easy for me to embrace this perspective when I’m feeling challenged by someone, yet when I can, it certainly empowers me and the situation.

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