Dealing With Difficult People, Like Me

I am a difficult person.

This puts me in “good” company. I cannot tell you how many of us there are, even we do not really know for sure. Suffice it to say, we are legion. And we command an incredible amount of attention from people like you.

You and your co-workers spend hours analyzing us…. you know you do.  You marvel at how we got here and why we stick around. You have strategies to cope with us. Masses of experts write columns advising you how to interact with us. Heck, there is an entire industry of training classes on “Dealing with Difficult People” like me. I will bet you have taken one. Dealing with me is as pervasive a problem as dealing with a psychological malady. Type the phrase 'dealing with' into your search engine? What comes up?

Here’s my top five Google hits:

Figuring out how to deal with me provokes almost as much interest as managing anxiety, depression, and grief! Dealing with me is more search worthy than dealing with stress! It might even be that dealing with me and mine is the source of all the anxiety, depression, grief, and stress. How did we difficult people get so powerful?

I suspect I know part of the answer. We are everywhere. Why? Because we are almost everyone. Not you, of course. (I have never seen you at our meetings, but pretty much everyone around you attends.)

Most difficult people are walking the earth, trying to get their needs met, and they do not know they are difficult.

I am not supposed to do this but I will give you some suggestions about dealing with us. Have you seen The Sixth Sense? You know those characters in the film, like Dr. Malcom Crowe, who do not know they are dead? Most difficult people are walking the earth, trying to get their needs met, and they do not know they are difficult. But you already suspected that, right? That drives you crazy about us. We are difficult but cannot see it!!!!!! And when you subtly tell us that we are being difficult, we still do not get it, and that frustrates you. When we see your frustration, we become even more difficult. Argh.

So, back to learning how to deal with us. This will require a little thought experiment. Try imagining that you are a difficult person—at least someone else’s difficult person. Think about your virtues at work: some of your productive habits, the things that have made you successful. Maybe you have been successful because you are practical and realistic. You are decisive and quickly implement decisions. You easily organize projects and people and focus on getting results in the most efficient way. You have developed a clear set of logical standards which you systematically follow. How could you, with all these obvious virtues, be difficult? 

One way you could be difficult is by leveraging (or over-leveraging) these very strengths. Some of us love practical, realistic, decisive, organized, efficient, logical, systematic people. (And sometimes everyone needs one.) But, what about people who thrive off the impractical? Who cherish the ideal?  What about the people for whom your decisiveness is hastiness, your love to bring order and efficiency violates their need for freedom and emotional connectedness? What happens if your systematic approach suffocates their need for inspiration? And what about when you are under pressure? Perhaps stress intensifies your default setting and your virtues tip into vices? Well, perhaps that is when they start searching for advice on “dealing with you.” 

Maybe I completely mis-described you. (I simply used a description of one particular Myers-Briggs personality type.) You likely have some other set of wonderful characteristics, but whichever set you have likely there is some significant portion of the population for which you—by being a very good and well-intentioned you—are a bit difficult

I have conducted the following experiment many times when leading team development sessions.  I ask people to close their eyes and then raise their hand if they are a “difficult person.” Typically, in a group of 20 or more, perhaps only one or two people self-identify. Often, no one does. Then I will ask the group—with eyes still closed—to raise their hand if someone in the room is, for them, a difficult person.  It is not unusual to see almost every hand in the air.  How can this be? 

Each of us, even when bringing our A-game, can unintentionally be the difficult person, but it is hard to see it, and it is hard to feel it.

Intellectually, we understand this. Each of us, even when bringing our A-game, can unintentionally be the difficult person, but it is hard to see it, and it is hard to feel it. It is easier to assume the problem is only, or mostly, the other person. Unfortunately, making this assumption is deeply problematic. We assume there is a certain class of difficult people—they are unlike me—and if I can learn some good tactics, perhaps I can deal with them. However, framing them as “difficult people” does not just assure you will never solve the problem. It goes a long way to creating the problem in the first place.

Some readers—if they made it this far—may be rolling their eyes and saying to themselves, “If you only knew Andy or Betty or Chen. Everyone in the office agrees they are difficult!”  Yes, I get that. There are some people whose behavior falls so dramatically short of morally or professionally acceptable that they win, and possibly deserve, office consensus as truly difficult. However, in my experience, they are a very small minority, probably 1% of the population. If that is not the case in your office, then a serious examination of the hiring process is needed.

You may recall I offered to provide advice on dealing with difficult people. Not necessarily the irredeemably difficult 1%., but the vast majority of “difficult people.”  My advice: ask yourself how you would like to be “dealt with” when you are being perceived as difficult.

My personal answer: I would like you to assume I have good intent. I would like you to assume I may not perceive how my behavior is negatively impacting you or others. I would like you to tell me—respectfully, politely, and directly about what I am doing. I would like you to be patient with me while I try to accommodate your needs.  I would like you to be open to considering how you may need to help me. (I would even like you to consider that part of my “difficulty” may be your projection). And, I would ask you to avoid doing a few things. Please do not settle on one simple story to explain why I am difficult. I am human. I am complex and nuanced like you. I am not a one-dimensional character.    Please do not complain about me to other people, or worse yet, find allies who agree that I am difficult. (You can always find an ally, especially if you work to convince them.) And, please do not frame the problem as Ryan is a difficult person… like I have some ontological deformity or deep-seated character flaw. I may do some things that are messed up, but I am not a messed-up thing. Like you, I am just trying to get along the best way I know how.

-- Ryan