5 Strategies When Difficult People Try to Derail You – by Tim Milburn

Tim Milburn

Chances are, you’ve run into a few people whom you would classify as “difficult people.” These are people who seem intent on being unhappy, critical, or hard to get along with no matter what you try to do.

I’ve had people wringing their hands in my office, having come face-to-face with a difficult person. They’re surprised that someone else would treat them harshly or act in a difficult manner. These people sit there in disbelief and wondering: What do I do?

As I reflect with them on the situation, I ask them to be mindful of a couple of things:

First, I want them to realize the reality that there are people out there who simply don’t share the desire to get along with others. They either aren’t aware of what normal social interaction looks like or they don’t care what “normal” is. You can’t always avoid these people and you probably won’t be able to change them. Basically, I don’t want these folks to be continually shocked when they run into difficult people. Plus, I don’t want them to be overly influenced by the other person’s negativity.

Second, I want them be aware that every person’s behavior boils down to a choice he or she makes. Just because another person chooses to live in a way that causes friction with others, we don’t have to respond in kind. We get to choose to act differently according to a higher set of ideals. I encourage them to learn how to stay strong in the midst of confrontational behavior and not lower their standards. Some people are caught in destructive cycles of behavior. Don’t allow yourself to fall into their trap.

Some Of The Ways Difficult People Are Difficult
You’ve probably experienced difficult people in a variety of situations and manifestations. They often…

  • operate with a double agenda
  • struggle with anger
  • have low self-esteem
  • try to manipulate
  • appear arrogant
  • can’t tell the truth
  • need to control everything
  • focus solely on themselves

There may be other ways that difficult people have been difficult to you. Whatever the situation is, there are some healthy ways you can deal with the issue in a positive and professional manner.

Sometimes, a person may feel cornered or be tempted to get defensive when going toe to toe with a difficult person. If anything, these types of interactions take a lot of energy and we often feel compelled to give in to their demands just to get away from the situation.

I want to offer the following five strategies for engaging a difficult person while keeping necessary boundaries. These five responses help an individual focus on the issue at hand instead of getting wrapped up in the negative emotions of the person or the encounter itself.

1. Name that tune.

This person is acting a certain way because there is a problem. Help to diffuse the situation a bit by letting him know you recognize there is a problem. This can keep the confrontation from becoming larger than it has to be. When you state that you know there’s a problem (even naming the problem), it may throw the difficult person off guard. He is probably looking to argue or manipulate something and here you are, acknowledging the issue. By showing the other person that you recognize he is upset (even if his anger is illogical from your perspective), you are demonstrating that he is a person of value to you.

2. Mirror the message.

By this, I mean, repeat back — word for word — what the difficult person has said. When this person hears her own words repeated back to her — especially irrational or irresponsible words — she may be caught off guard by the reality of what she has said and may have to rethink it. If her statement is full of emotion or venom, restating it also buys you some time to consider what you should say next; how you should respond. You might be tempted to retaliate in a like manner, which would only play into her hand. You need to move the conversation to a more logical and objective discussion, and put the burden back on the difficult person who has made a critical or irrational statement.

3. Put their words into your own words.

Difficult people may not know how they’re coming across. By rewording what the person has said, it causes him to reflect on the deeper meaning of it. One way to do this is to respond by saying, “So, what you’re really saying is …” Sometimes reflecting the intentions of a person’s statements in this way must make him reconsider what his words really mean – and how they’re being heard. It also helps a difficult person to realize that his meaning is communicated more through how he says something rather than what he’s said.

4. Get down to the core.

Difficult people will use a variety of tactics, one of which is speaking around an issue. Try to summarize as quickly as possible what this person is trying to get at. If you can crystallize the issue into a clear and concise idea, you’ll be better able to disconnect it from the irrational aspects of your conversation. It may also help you find out if there is a real issue in the first place or if the person is simply being difficult.

5. Ask questions.

When someone lashes out at us or puts us into a defensive posture, we may want to fight back. One of the ways to keep from being pulled into an emotionally-charged exchange is to ask the difficult person a question about what she said. A properly placed question can stop a difficult person in middle of her tirade and refocus the conversation back towards productive dialogue. For example, if a difficult person accuses you of something ludicrous, respond by asking, in a nonthreatening way, “What are you trying to tell me?”

Once we are able to move past our surprise of having to deal with difficult people, we can begin to use these techniques with greater effectiveness. Don’t get caught up in the trap of playing the games they do. If you feel yourself losing control of your emotions, simply remove yourself from the situation for a moment.

Ultimately, recognize difficult people and their words and actions for what they are and work at disconnecting yourself emotionally from the irrational behavior of others. You’ve been called on to lead people (not all of them will be easy to get along with). Be faithful to do what you have been called to do, and resist the temptation of allowing difficult people to derail your faithful efforts in leading them.


Tim Milburn is dedicated to developing lifelong leaders. He is the author of Leadership Starts With You.  For a free copy of his other book, Tweedership, click on http://timmilburn.com/enjoy-tweedership. You can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his weekly articles on leadership development.