How to handle difficult people

Probably one of the worst aspects of being in practice or indeed of any working environment is having to deal with difficult people.

Sole practitioners who operate without staff and who are very choosy about their clients may only encounter difficult people in her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC)*. At the other extreme, a manager in a larger firm might encounter difficult colleagues, junior staff, partners and clients, as well as fellow professionals in other firms and employees at all levels in HMRC.

Most of us have to deal with difficult people at work. How difficult a person is to deal with depends on our self-esteem, self-confidence and our professional courage. Dealing with difficult people is easier when the person is just generally obnoxious or when the behaviour affects more than one person. The task becomes much tougher when they are attacking you personally or undermining your professional contribution.

One way or another you have to decide whether to ignore the difficult behaviour (perhaps you will rise above it); to confront the person; delegate your dealings with them (whether to a colleague, a junior person or a more senior one); or remove the need for interactions (whether by you or them leaving the position that gives rise to the difficult interactions).

Ignore the behaviour

This is easier said than done, and may come across as submissive or non-assertive. It is rarely the best solution except on those occasions where you will not need to interact with the person again. In such cases you may get what you need or resolve matters simply by ignoring their challenging behaviour.

Confront the person

This requires you to be assertive and to avoid the temptation to be aggressive. This means you must accept that however difficult the other person may be, they still have rights and so do you. When you are assertive you recognise that you are entitled to information, clarification or a reply but that your entitlement is no greater (or less) than the other person's entitlement to respect, politeness and honesty. When you act aggressively, you deny the other person their rights.

The other option is to act submissively or non-assertively, which means you deny your own rights. If this is your default position then you would probably benefit from some assertiveness training. It's hard to respect non-assertive professional advisers.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Many of us have worked for an aggressive boss who we think revels in their ability to bully us. This may force us into a non-assertive stance. It will rarely enable us to get the best outcome.

Assertiveness is a skill. It's not natural for everyone and can take practice to strike the right balance so that you do not come across as aggressive. Being naturally assertive is a skill worth developing.

Delegate or share

I'm a firm believer in keeping the end in mind, by which I mean focusing on the desired outcome.

Let's say you are having difficulty securing the desired (fair) outcome in negotiations with an inspector at HMRC. Might someone else in the firm have ideas that could help resolve things? Is it more important that you be seen to have resolved things alone or that you/the firm secures the best possible outcome?

If a difficult client is taking too long to produce the necessary papers or to respond to your enquiries, perhaps someone else could go to meet them face to face or simply to collect things?


The drastic solution is to resign and move on, arrange for the difficult junior staff member to be moved on (following due process of course), or to tell the client that you no longer want to act for them (yes you can!).

* Like the IRS, but meaner Editor.

Mark Lee is chairman of the Tax Advice Network and consultant practice editor for AccountingWEB. He writes a regular blog for ambitious professionals:

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