Dealing with Difficult People

Are you able to picture a difficult person to work with?  The particular way their words sound, or lack of conversation, creates a frustrated feeling in your chest.

Truth is, that same difficult person you know also works well with a certain “group” of people.

It is different for every one of your “difficult” persons, but they have a communication barrier that only others speaking their language may penetrate.

Let’s Look at Two Situations You’ve Experienced in Depth.

bored woman man talkingI can never get a word in when they're around

“I had dinner with him two weeks ago and his mouth was going a mile a minute, never once stopping to consider anything I had to say.  It was first about his kids, and I have nothing against his kids – I actually enjoyed this part, but then it went from the lawn to his car, his boat, his bowling match and it just kept going until I tuned out and asked for the check at the soonest moment.” -Patricia

What we find is that some people never get off of the soapbox, but find difficulties opening opportunities for others.  As the listener, we either enjoy their speech and accept that our input would only detract from the message, or seek to add to the hopeful conversation and become discouraged.

If you have seen the same problem, you’ll find that the person speaking describes ideas very visually.  According to Neuro Linguistic Programming Theory, they typically describe what things look like rather than sound like or feel like, much like the quote, “A picture is worth a thousand words.

These pictures constantly flick into their mind, and as they struggle to show you the snapshot (though it may be on their phone), they do justice to the idea by describing everything occurring.


One Picture is Worth Ten Thousand Words –Chinese Proverb


Someone acting this way isn’t trying to upstage all others in a conversation and win with the most words; they have the best interest of the group at heart.  They simply wish for others to have as beautiful of a picture in mind as they have in their own head.

To break into the conversation and create an opportunity for input, link their picture to yours.  You’ll find that by beginning a sentence with “Look” opens an interest in a person who is behaving this way.

Patricia, in the beginning story, may have connected the picture of the gentleman’s children with other children familiar to her.

Look here at your kids getting so smart and crafty around the house.  Children at the daycare center I work for create so many fun contraptions, and like you said, out of macaroni and finger paint!”

Helping them to describe their own picture shows that you support their idea.  Linking it to your own visual experiences allows you to speak in their own language.

woman gossipThey cut me off or block me when I try to propose an idea or complete a task

“She won’t stop talking behind my back to the other ladies about how a proposal I made or account I am currently holding will either fall through or lacks “vision.”  And when I talk to her I can’t bring it up, because something always happens, making one of us end the conversation.” -Tammantha

This particular person acting difficult may be doing it consciously or unconsciously, but for a specific reason. From Need Satisfaction, a longstanding theory in Psychology by Deci & Vansteenkist, we understand that they have an unmet need determining this behavior.

Each need differs as per individual, but fixing the need always begins in the same place.

As a co-worker, friend, or acquaintance, you have the power to fight fire with fire or retaliate in other ways.  I recommend this only if you know with absolute certainty that no person will ever remember you in a negative way for acting in retaliation.  If that is not feasible, you’ll find that our quick question smooths a perfect foundation for launching a working relationship.

The truth is that this person is hurting on the inside and is compensating through either passive or active aggression – think of a child with a temper.  By using self-disclosure (talking about yourself) in Social Penetration Theory, the relationship may take a positive direction or, at least, find a neutral position.


Open up your next conversation with this phrase, “I totally understand how you feel, I felt the same way when I was at my previous job and I felt hurt by another co-worker who had thrown out my lunch (have your own real-life example).  What I found was that I felt hurt because of other things as well, what is it that’s hurting you?

The opening “feel” phrase acknowledges acceptance of the person as a person with emotions and thoughts.  Social Penetration is realized through the “self-disclosure” of the “felt” phrasing.  “Found” opens up the opportunity for the co-worker to share what is on their mind, which may be long overdue (gunny sack theory).

Just in case if you had other types of difficult people we have…

Other Resources:

Resource post on the power of listening

Workshop on having critical conversations with others and impacting change

Resource post on gaining a response from others

Resource post on changing roles and response in a conversation

Events Around You on empowering topics

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