How to deal with difficult people at work

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By Maynard Brusman

Are you struggling to cope with difficult people at work? If you are, then you are not alone. The workplace is full of difficult people who can make your life miserable if you let them.

Difficult people come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. They are demanding, often defensive, problematic, and can drain all of your energy. And those are just the respectful terms coworkers use when interacting and dealing with these people.

Hardly a day goes by in my coaching practice without someone sharing a story with me of how a person at work is driving her nuts and sapping her energy. Very often it’s the boss who they experience as being arrogant, condescending, and disrespectful or maybe even a bully. It might be a coworker who is argumentative with a big ego and thinks he’s always right.

Healthy conflict


Interpersonal conflict in the workplace is normal, and can be healthy if handled in the right way. However, a lot of my clients avoid dealing with difficult people because they don’t feel they have the power to do anything about the situation, don’t have the skills to resolve difficult interactions, or fear potential political consequences.

Conflict at work is a normal and natural dynamic of employees interacting with one another. The cost of resolving conflict is small relative to the high cost of leaving conflicts unresolved. Unresolved conflict can be toxic to both people and organizations.

Unhealthy conflict


Recent studies indicate that 30 to 40 percent of a manager’s daily activities are devoted to dealing with some form of interpersonal conflict. A manager’s inability to effectively deal with anger and conflict in the workplace might result in a large loss of productivity and adversely impact others who work there. Having to endure these conflicts without sufficient tools, resources or support, employees’ distress can get out of control.

Difficult behavior can inhibit performance in others and will only get worse if not addressed, thus affecting more people and incurring significant costs for the organization. It takes many forms like gossiping or not talking to or acknowledging coworkers. The culture of the organization can be adversely affected where there is a deafening silence as people suppress their emotions and their stress levels increase.

Most conflict involving people at work revolves around unfulfilled needs, primarily the psychological need for control, recognition, affection, and respect. These needs are natural and quite human in that we all desire them.

Resolving conflict


There is no magic pill but there are some proven emotional intelligence strategies to help change behavior in others. It might not help to brand someone a problem or a jerk. We can work to prevent unproductive and negative behavior that leads to conflict.

The first step is self-awareness or tapping into your reactivity and knowing what story you are telling yourself about the person and situation. Do you know that it’s true? What’s the evidence? Could there be another side to the story? What are you experiencing emotionally? Maybe it’s fear, anger, hurt, or unhappiness.

The next step is to engage the person whom you consider difficult. I’ve found the best approach is to stay calm and ask the offending person a powerful question with the intention of seeking to understand. It seems so simple, but can be so difficult to then listen deeply to what may be the other person’s different reality. It’s more akin to a coach approach of not making the person wrong. You want to encourage dialogue.

Inquire into the other person's thinking and feeling regarding the situation in order to improve understanding. Use open-ended coaching questions that start with what or how. Why questions can cause defensiveness. Yes or no questions can stop a conversation in its tracks. This will help the other person to give clarifying answers, which should help you understand their interpretation and perspective.

Finally, it takes patience, perseverance, and some assertiveness. Make a request of the other person. Ask for what you need to have a more productive working relationship. The other person can accept or reject your request, or can make a counteroffer.

Take positive action


Practice some of these strategies with someone you find somewhat difficult, but not too unreasonable. Once you get more comfortable and achieve some success in behavior change, move on to someone who is a bit more challenging.

Some of the most difficult people I have encountered in my executive coaching work have developed more productive relationships once underlying fears were explored and trust was established. It might seem surprising, but a number of coaching clients that are referred to me because of being difficult were unaware of how they were perceived by other people. They were open to change once they received the feedback. There are always a few people who display such egregious behavior that other organizational recourses might be necessary. Seek organizational support.

Are you working in a professional services firm or other organization where executive coaches provide leadership development for leaders at all levels? Does your company provide executive coaching to help leaders improve their ability to effectively resolve conflict? Leaders at all levels need to improve their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “Am I effective at dealing with difficult people at work?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching for leaders who help their employees to improve their ability to influence others.

Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260, and Denison Culture Survey can help you facilitate the resolution of interpersonal conflict and create a healthy workplace culture. You can become a leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission, and strategy of your company or firm.

About the author:

Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist and executive coach. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies and law firms assess, select, coach, and retain emotionally intelligent leaders. Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded Dr. Maynard Brusman "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development. He can be reached at [email protected], or call (415) 546-1252.

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