I’ve encountered more self-centered, short-tempered, “difficult” people in my personal life than I have in my professional life. I haven’t always succeeded in cooperating with them — I’ve even written about it. Sometimes giving up and moving on is the best option. But that’s only sometimes.

Getting the Best Out of a Difficult Work Relationship

In many cases, getting the best out of a difficult person takes some sensitivity, some empathy, and a lot of discipline. I’ve learned that most difficult people are reasonable at their very core, but it just takes a bit more work to bring out that side of them.

Reaching common ground and a common goal is never easy work, and that’s especially true with difficult people. Below are a few lessons I’ve learned about working and interacting with them.

Be Understanding and Helpful

People generally become difficult, angry, or frustrated because they are confused by something — when the reality of a situation differs from their expectations. I think a lot of it may come down to ego as well.

Most people, even the most unreasonable of people, appreciate being listened to.

In a professional context, people may be upset or confused because they don’t understand something. Their lack of knowledge in a given area may frighten or surprise them, and they may feel that their ignorance (used literally) undermines their authority — this is where the ego part comes in. I don’t believe that difficult people are necessarily egomaniacal, but, in my experience, those who tend to be difficult to work with often have a somewhat inflated sense of importance. When a difficult person’s sense of importance, be it in the form of wisdom, experience, or seniority, is threatened, they may respond in a hostile manner. That doesn’t bode well for a productive work relationship.

In a personal context, people may be difficult for myriad reasons. They may be lonely, or frightened, or much too preoccupied with other difficulties in life to focus on being polite or easy to work with. They may be insecure and therefore act difficult or hostile to cope. Likewise, they may cope by putting up a psychological wall that makes cooperation and collaboration difficult (or impossible).

Whether you encounter them in a professional or personal context, difficult people are not naturally “bad people.” I believe they all just want to be listened to and given a bit of respect.

As a person seeking common ground, you need to show that you can understand and empathize with difficult people, empathize with their confusion, their frustration, and their need to maintain their sense of importance. You need to show that you’re there to help them beyond all else, that you’re there to work toward a common goal that’s as important to you as it is to them.

I’ve found that the first step to getting anyone to cooperate — not just difficult people — is to help them feel comfortable. Be open to their suggestions; listen to them (and make it clear that you’re listening to them and valuing what they say). Most people, even the most unreasonable of people, appreciate being listened to.

That being said, openness and understanding is not a 100% guaranteed way to get a difficult person to cooperate. Some people refuse to be reasoned with. Others will recognize what you’re doing and, feeling patronized, shut you and the entire interaction down. That’s okay. The important thing is that you try, and try earnestly.

Be Flexible and Aware of Your Boundaries

Be kind and helpful, be open and flexible, but be firm. If you give a difficult, self-centered person an opening with which to walk all over you, they’ll tend to take advantage. I don’t mean to make these types of people sound predatory. I just think they tend to do it out of habit, often unconsciously.

There are ways to be firm without being unkind, and I think those methods come when you have a good sense of yourself and your boundaries.

How much of a “loss” are you willing to take when interacting with a difficult person? In which areas do you refuse to compromise (and why)? How aware are you of when someone begins to take advantage of your kindness or your flexibility? Knowing is important.

If you’re too flexible, too lenient, you allow the difficult person too much control of the interaction. If there is not an occasional push back, then the mutual goal cannot be reached; it either becomes their goal, or the interaction breaks down, and no goal at all is achieved.

Again, keep in mind that an interaction with a difficult person may leave no room for negotiation. They may fail to recognize your boundaries, or they may recognize your boundaries and then stop the interaction altogether. You cannot control what they do — remember that. You can, however, control your boundaries and control the methods by which you maintain your dignity.

Avoid Playing Games

In general, I don’t think it’s a great idea to match the emotions or methods of a difficult person. In my experience, fighting fire with fire, in professional and personal contexts, rarely if ever leads to any progress. It just leads to gridlock or someone storming off, which leaves the problem or issue at hand still unsolved. This is easier to avoid in a professional context than it can be in a personal context.

In the workplace, you often have standards of behavior you have to uphold. You represent not just yourself, but your company as well. It’s often in your best interest to be cooperative, flexible, and kind with a difficult customer/client. You’re expected to turn the other cheek from time to time because responding with anger or malice, even when you’re just reflecting the poor behavior of the client/customer, is often a bad look. It’s seen as a poor reflection of your self-control, your personal discipline, and of your employer as a whole. Bad behavior is bad behavior, regardless of if the other person “deserves” it or not.

It’s a different story in your personal life, though. You don’t have to worry about getting fired or written up. You can often give difficult people a taste of their own medicine without any long-term adverse effects to yourself. However, if reflecting the attitude of difficult people is your only form of dealing with them, then you’ll slowly develop into difficult person yourself. If your first move is to go on the attack when someone criticizes you harshly or to storm off when someone else refuses to cooperate, then you’ve developed, over time, an ineffective means of reducing/solving conflict.

Sometimes it’s necessary to “lose” an argument; sometimes it’s necessary to compromise or take a short-term loss in exchange for a long-term gain. Sometimes, it’s necessary to put your ego aside for a second and forget about “winning” with a difficult person. Many especially difficult people — those who border on narcissism — simply never yield to others. Coming at them with force will not work. Their ego is fragile and because of that, it is heavily protected. A more subtle approach is needed if there is to be any hope of reaching a mutual goal.

I believe a person truly grows when they learn how (and when) to “lose” strategically in an interaction with a difficult person. Finesse is often more powerful than force.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
Getting the best out of a difficult work relationship takes sensitivity, empathy, and a lot of discipline. Here are a few tips to make it work.