Do you know how to defuse difficult people?

difficult people, defuse, anger,

Neutralising difficult people is crucial not only in business but in all areas of life. Devote 3 minutes to watching Nina Godiwalla, CEO of Mindworks, telling Harvard  how we can change our reaction: 

Nina trains executives and most of them are of the opinion that their biggest challenge is other people’s behavior. Does it sound familiar?

Change your reaction

How you respond to someone’s behavior makes a huge difference. Many times a person initiates a negative message or difficult attitude, just to trigger a response from you. If you react, you actually give them what they want. So stop the cycle of negative snowballing and sell them short on what they’re looking for by simply not responding.

The worst you can do is getting defensive because that'w what they want.
The worst thing you can do is getting defensive because that’s usually what they want.

Don’t get defensive

If you don’t start arguing with someone they usually stop their aggressive behaviour. One way is to just answer with a non-judgmental observation. It’s difficult, I know, because the cause of conflict is the trigger to our emotions and our emotions are what drive us back to our most basic survival instinct i.e. to react and attack back to defend ourselves.

But to counter attack makes it even worse, and is usually what the difficult person wants. So if you answer with an observation the person who attacked you normally backs off. Another way is to ask thoughtful questions to make them aware of what they are doing?

Change poison to nectar

Sometimes it’s possible to completely stun a person trying to pour poison on you. You can do that by complimenting the other person for something or tell them you have learnt from interacting with them. The difficult part about this strategy is to be, or at least appear to be, genuine. It may be difficult to find something positive about the person and you need a poker face to appear genuine.

How do you handle difficult people? Do you get defensive and counter attack? Or have you learnt to change your reaction? Do you realize that frequently difficult people take their own frustrations out on you? Are you able to control your emotions and not respond? Maybe you have even learnt to give them compliments to disarm them? What strategies have enabled you to defuse attackers? 

by Catarina Alexon

Video: Harvard – Picture: Patrik Nygren

102 thoughts on “Do you know how to defuse difficult people?

  1. Hi Catarina, what I usually do is avoid conflict when the person is seriously emotional, and bring the discussion in a more peaceful time. Most often, when you 'clash' there might be a good result out of it, especially in the corporate world where some people believe that shouting and screaming equals leadership. However, I was educated differently, and I stand by this same principle until this day…"You should always talk in a constructive way to people, do not enter pointless discussions or arguments where the other persons is only interested in lashing out at you"

  2. Thanks for sharing such an interesting video. I am really interested in the topic of emotional intelligence & non-violent communication. Only by mastering these two skills, we can fully control our feelings , therefore enjoy life

  3. This is great advice on diffusing difficult people. When I was younger I would engage with difficult people, get defensive and find myself in a no win, make you want to pull your hair out discussions. It is only as I have gotten older that I learned the rules of engagmemt for difficult people. Now I just don't respond. Works everytime.

  4. I find it more difficult to deal with personal conflicts than the ones at work. what I usually do is just stop interacting with the person. Arguing with them is impossible so I don't bother.

  5. I have had to deal with situations, both in the military and in the private sector, this included the wrestling profession. The military and wrestling are similar, both are testosterone filled arguments.
    The major thing I found to help me is to let the situation die down for a bit. Give each person to vent their anger out, then they can talk without yelling at each other. Time seems to be able to help very dramatically.
    Additionally, it is important to see their point of view. Something may seem small to you, but if you view it from their point, you realize how important it is to them.
    Interesting article and thanks for sharing this with us.

  6. Great Post Catarina!
    When dealing with difficult people is not easy. Once one can handle it out it's a successful relief.
    I feel understanding people and listening helps to bridge the gap! What do you say?

    1. Normally I can handle them but if I'm tired I sometimes react, unfortunately. If I give a speech or something and am tired I have to force myself not to get into an argument with them.

  7. In my place of work, I remain professional by choosing not to react. Reacting means the other person controls you and you are likely to step into territory that is not so easy to back out of. As you have stated some people do try to push your buttons but when you take your emotions out of the equation, you are far more objective.

    Around family I am obviously more care free. I know they love me unconditionally so they see every part of me which is not always pretty!

  8. Hi Catarina: It is so amazing that you have posted this now, as just this morning, I had an encounter with a difficult person that caused me to write a post about how I diffuse negative energy by focusing on my own positive energy and filling my heart with gratitude. It is also interesting how Phoenicia posted about bad attitudes. We’re all on the same wavelength this week!
    My recent post being grateful will improve your health

  9. I totally agree! We should listen intently to the other persons feels about a topic but not react to it. I believe we are all here to learn about ourselves and how to deal with others. So, I prefer not to react to a person who is attacking me. I allow them to vent and then I relay what they said so to make sure I understand. If I don’t understand, I ask more questions. Being attentive in a conversation makes a word of difference.

  10. If you must interact with a difficult person in the course of your work, try to find common ground with them. Don't engage in an argument. Instead, concede right away" "I see your point." That will diffuse a difficult situation right away and make the other person feel s/he is in control. Then you can start to have a conversation in which you express your own ideas.
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  11. A couple of thoughts I’ve gradually learned over the years have helped me to deal with difficult people:
    1. Don’t take it personally, because it usually isn’t personal. If it is personal, this isn’t “who” they are, and they still have other admirable qualities.
    2. Accept that for some reason they disagree, but so do you so you’re still equals.
    3. It doesn’t matter if you’re not really wrong. What matters is that if they feel mistreated, you should do your best to fix it.

  12. I like that phrase: negative snowballing. It's so descriptive! I find this problem sometimes when blogging and interacting on social media. When someone criticizes something I've done, it's hard not to be defensive, but that' just not productive. It's good to take a minute and calm down, and then try to respond with something constructive. Works almost every time!

    1. Agree with you one hundred percent, Meredith. Sometimes I have to swallow hard in order to ignore some remark. One trick they use is to change the subject, just like politicians. And suddenly it looks like you have written something complletely different from what you wrote.

  13. It ‘s challenging dealing with diffiicult people, but sometimes we need to stand up to them after they’ve said their piece. Reverse psychology also works well. Good post!

  14. This has never been something I am good at. In theory and discussion I can point to the appropriate concepts, but in practice it is an entire different matter. Big sigh…

  15. I think handling difficulty people, are one of those strengths which allow you to succeed. As you stated, our initial response is to attack back, but it just escalates the situation, which is what the difficult person wants. Thanks for sharing this very useful blog.

  16. Great post Catarina!
    The top 3 lessons I learned during my post doctoral work was
    1.Never get caught up in someone's anxiety.
    2. Don't let others define your behavior.
    3.In difficult exchanges count to 20 before responding.(I've gone as long as two minutes.)
    I can't tell you how many times I've used these tips in my professional and personal (especially when my kids were teenagers!) life.

  17. This was a tactic I grew better at every year I spent in the classroom. I would never call a student out in front of their peers. If an issue arises, it's always best to talk to that person on the side. It's also necessary to identify the problematic behavior and how it's disruptive. That is when backing off takes place as pointed out in the video. Asking questions involves the person in a respectful way.

  18. Catarina, like Doreen I was involved with volunteers and these are people that are desperately needed by charities. The problem is, that since they are volunteers, some of them feel that gives them the right to bypass rules and regulations. That was probably my biggest management challenge. How did I deal with it. Usually straight on by using the ‘sandwich approach’.- such as: I really appreciate all the time you give but having you make decisions that affect the organization is outside your area of responsibility and can create serious problems. However, anytime you want to bring one of your good ideas to me, we will certainly discuss it. This usually got them working with me.

      1. Catarina, that would have been a lot more difficult and it never happened to me, thank goodness, because I was a nervous presenter at the best of times. I think possibly I might have asked the person if they would be kind enough to come up and share their views. Catarina, you ask the darndest questions 🙂

        1. Sincerely hope the day I stop learning, I'm dead, Lenie. Hence, among other things, ask a lot of questions. Do read what pgc4950 wrote below. She knows how to handle real ***holes.:-)

  19. This is so spot on Catarina. Your comments and the video. It's amazing how someone can attack us first to just elicit a response to satisfy THEIR ego. Keeping my emotions out of it is often the toughest part. But handling it both ways – responding on the defense or responding with being quieter – for sure, the quieter works best. I've got my share of bloody noses!

  20. I have always tried to put myself in the other persons shoes and if that doesn’t work I will often ask, as friendly as possible, why they are in such a sour mood. On more occasions than not I have been rewarded with a smile and laugh; the ice is then broken and you can get back down to business.

  21. A few times, I noticed how the worst situations would seem trivial if I was in a good mood. Comfort foods, stress-free rest, and positive life changes, e.g., being newly in love, would trigger it. Maybe the more surprising thing was that I finally realized it.

    An occasional sexual harasser who used to target female new hires, his gorgeous ex, and me wised up when I asked him if he had daughters. Unbelievably, he did, and one of them was almost old enough to date. When I mentioned how his life would change once boys started approaching that oldest one, something clicked. He never harassed me again for the duration of my employment at that company.
    My recent post Do You Know the 7 Reasons You Might Be a Mentor?

    1. Good way of dealing with him, Deidre. But the worst to handle are the ones that attack you when you give a speech and are really intent on proving themselves at your expense in front of an audience listening to you. So far I have managed to defuse such people. But if it's a psychopath it's probably easier said than done:-)

  22. Having run a large sales organization in my former work life, complaining/difficult customers were part of the routine. It is imperative that you know how to respond to them without losing your cool yourself. Most of the time, they just want to feel that they are being heard so listening is paramount to diffusing the situation. So I always tried to hear them out and then ask what could be done to rectify the problem or situation. Approaching a difficult person/problem without emotion is key.

    1. Agree with you, Susan. But it's understandable that customers that are not content are difficult, isn't it. What really bothers me is when a real a**'ole decides to ruin a presentation or something similiar. Frequently what they say is incorrect. They just want to exercise power and feel good about ruining something for someone else. When that happens say that it's a great point and suggest that we can talk about it later. Sometimes we do but sometimes they are no longer interested:-)

  23. Great advice. It can be challenging sometimes to turn off the negative language that often follows when someone is difficult, but it makes a tremendous difference. I have also posed questions to clarify an ask when it is an outrageous one or simply not risen to the bait of a provocative comment. I’ve had 30 second pauses in conversations because I would not respond to a comment. 🙂

  24. I think there are different ways to deal with difficult people depending on the person and how they are behaving. True bullies may need standing up, but others are generally angry, hurt, and insecure about something. Staying calm and not reacting badly yourself while determining the best way to deal with a situation can be a challenge. Sometimes you need to acknowledge how they're feeling, let them know you've heard them without agreeing with their point of view.

    1. Glad you agree, Donna. It can be really challenging. Most of the time I honestly don't feel like dealing with them. Isn't it amazing how people can behave just because they are taking something else that happened to them out on someone:-)

  25. Great post Catarina! I found this to be an issue in my career, not only with some fellow employees but with customers too. Of course, the reaction would vary dependent on who I was dealing with. I have often used the tactic described in the video when dealing with folks who were less than attentive in a meeting… How can I help you get all that work done? Seemed to work every time. Though I have to admit, sometimes I am biting my tongue in half!!!! LOL

    1. Seems we have the same experiences of defusing difficult people, Jacqueline. Even om social media when someone attacks me I sometimes have to swallow, count to ten and ignore the person.

  26. Always there is common lines with colleagues or fellow workers, it is not always conflicts. However, whenever a hard argument starts , it is important to listen and not to react immediately, there are some correct points that can be used to reach solution. We should not react instantly. Our aim is first to resolve, then to diffuse difficult people. I do not need to be defensive , I need to come up with the optimum solution.

  27. A lot of good ideas here to hold in our toolbox to deal with difficult people. An additional approach I have used, especially in situations where the relationship is critical, is to take genuine time to understand what it is like to walk in their shoes. In my experience you can usually find something you can connect with, that you can respect or appreciate, that allows you to be more patient and accepting of the poor behavior while you apply many of the other approaches described by Nina and throughout the prior comments.

  28. Recently, I had to actually, let someone go. This person should not have lasted the 6 weeks of the project. I had to let someone else go. That was not my decision. A person above me, "playing boss", said so. That person was responsible for the first person lasting over 5 weeks.

    Everything presented today was presented in the 80's. It is the musty, dusty list of stuff that is continually dragged out, polished up, and re presented as enlightened management.

    Applying the simple "Slim Fairview Test" Have things gotten more high, good, better? No. Have things gotten more low, bad, worse? Yes. Conclusion? Don't do that. The test works in reverse.

    Our problem (in the US) is the lack of respect for the empirical method–experimental–of solving problems. This applies to management.

    You perform the experiment. Record the results. Repeat the experiment. Duplicate the results. Form the conclusion.

    For too many years we have engaged in the method: formulate the theory, seek data to substantiate our conclusions.

    From the internet, very simple: a priori – based on hypothesis or theory rather than experiment. [The free dictionary dot com]

    With all due respect, Nina Godiwalla is pursuing a time tested method. Find what people like and sell it.

    Don't believe me?

    Diet books, get rich quick books, and self-help books don't work. If they did, we would all be skinny, rich and well adjusted. Rather, we are fat, poor, and polarised. Still, diet books, get rich quick books, and self help books continue to sell. The only difference is the venue: Talk show television or Harvard. Preaching to the choir still works.

    Regards, Slim
    My recent post Theocracy? America!

    1. Obviously Slim. Don't understand why you point out that human nature has not changed.

      However, a lot of people didn't learn tecniques for handling difficult people when you were young. Why? Because they simply were not born:-)

      By the way, I think you should have referred to what Aristotle said 367 B.C or Cicero 60 B.C since human nature was the same in ancient times as well. And so were difficult people.

  29. Hi, Catarina.

    Such an important topic: yes, very often the most difficult part of business is interpersonal. The video provides some excellent tips, like watching one's own reaction. I find it takes a lifetime of experience to work on relationships with difficult people. It's a process, and one is continually learning.
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    1. It would be easier if they all behave the same way, wouldn't it Leora? When you least expect it someone has a go at you in a way that you couldn't in your wildest dreams imagine:-)

  30. Great post as always Catarina and I enjoyed the video. Dealing with difficult people can be a huge challenge. I always keep in mind that there can only be 1 of 3 results. Either the situation will end in a win-lose (where they win and I lose), a lose-win (they lose/I win) or a win-win. Often, it's possible to find a mutually agreeable solution.
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  31. Boy can I relate to this. I used to run a large sales organization. We would get difficult customers who would complain from time to time. Knowing how to respond was important. Many times it is just taking a moment to really listen to what is being said. When we do it helps us to really think about how to respond. Many times if you just hear them out and then ask what could be done to change the problem or situation is all we need to ask. Often they just wanted to be heard and then we could offer a simple solution that made everyone happy. Approaching a difficult customer without emotion is key to having resolving the problem.
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  32. Such sound advice. I've done enough corporate training to know that this isn't an easy skill to master.

    In my online course of the same issue, I start with encouraging people to drop the label DIFFICULT and instead use DIFFERENT. Because that is in effect what it is. And what I have found is that if I agree, acknowledge or apologize from the point of that difference, it's way much easier to move forward with calmer and cooler heads.

    Great post as always Catarina.
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  33. Adeline has a great point but to ignore the comment also works depending on the person. I wouldn't ignore a boss. good post

  34. I've done a lot of meeting facilitation and if you find a disagreeable audience member, or worse, a bully, a very good way to diffuse the situation, is to ask, "What does the group think?" The group has been dying to shut the person up and will take care of the bully for you. However, if you become argumentative with the bully, the group will turn on you. Try asking the question the next time you're presenting to a group. It works like a charm.

  35. Although it is very difficult to not only avoid counteracting, but to take the high road in a genuine way, being the bigger person in interactions like this is much more rewarding and empowering. I like that you suggest saying "I've learned something from this interaction" because that's often true and will probably cause the other person to stop and think about the way they are acting. Cool post!
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  36. This is a great post! Because I work from home I do not encounter this type of situation very often. Many years ago I went through training like this with my co-workers. It's nice to get this reminder. 🙂
    My recent post Motivational Monday – 10/29

  37. A good post, Catarina, and good previous comments, too.

    Where the aggressive behaviour is an outpouring due to frustration having built up, the calm approach coupled with asking how they'd change things, is often best. However, when dealing with bullies, I've found that standing up them generally works best. Bullies are used to getting their way by making a fuss so that people don't challenge them and so when somebody does stand up to them they tend to retreat.

    1. Thank you Guy. Your ways of dealing with frustrated people and bullies are good. But it can be difficult to stand up to bullies, for instance if you are giving a speech in front of a prominent audience and the bully is an important person there. How would you deal with such a person?

      1. If somebody starts trying bullying tactics in front of a prominent audience, you need to shut it down – saying something like, "let's take this offline and discuss afterwards" often works and will keep the audience on your side. If the person persists, then you need to get more direct (an iterative loop until that person quietens down).

  38. Catarina, I just loved the video you shared and find that a lot of times, behavior that I term aggressive and hurtful really comes from a sincere place to help. It just was not delivered in a manner in which I found honoring. If I step back and consider the person's perspective and thought patterns, I might see that the "offense" really was a gift in disguise and the intent, not to harm, but to help.

    Coming from that standpoint in my own head/heart helps me not be as defensive as I might ordinarily be. Honoring the other person's brain pattern by acknowledging their brilliance and insight is a good way to diffuse the fire and open up a wonderfully insightful dialogue. Sure isn't easy, but I've seen it bring about strength and bonding of a team.

  39. Hi Catarina,

    There are good suggestions. I think it also depends on the person the way you react. For example if it is your boss you will probably react differently than if it was someone who reported to you. Mostly it comes down to how you think and not take it personally. It also comes down to how well you know the person and their behaviour.

    My recent post Is Complexity Hurting Your Business Success?

  40. I think the key to understanding difficult people is to determine their motivating factor. Are they motivated by ego? (i.e. "What's in it for me?") Are they being difficult because they don't clearly understand the issue, the situation or the association in which they are interacting? Or are they just a bully who gets pleasure from bugging people? I have an entire chapter devoted to this subject in my book on volunteerism, "Before You Say Yes … A Guide to the Pleasures & Pitfalls of Volunteer Boards."

    But in a nutshell, it's nearly impossible to change bullies and if they cease to change their behaviour after being confronted with it, it's best to suggest they place their efforts and talents elsewhere, and if you're lucky, they'll walk away and leave the situation/organization in peace rather than in pieces.
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    1. Good points Doreen. Interesting that you have written about the subject. Agree with you that it's nearly impossible to change bullies, and they are the worst to deal with. How do you personally handle, not change, a bully that attacks you in a situation where you need to make an impression on everybody else present?

  41. Excellent post Catarina. And Nina's video was very good as well. As I was reading this, I was realizing that I do this a lot. I'm pretty good at stopping aggressive people from attacking me, because I have always thought to myself that even with their aggressive attitudes, their words might still have value, and I need to stop and think about what they are saying and not just how they are saying it. However, sometimes, when I have a lot invested in something and it is personally important to me, it makes it a little harder to do this. That is where I need to improve.

    1. Thanks Bethany! Glad you know how to handle such people. Good idea to listen to what they really are saying. But would it be that easy if someone was deliberately trying to make you look like a fool in front of an audience that decided if you would get what you want or not?

      1. Catarina,–NO it would not be that easy. In fact, I would probably look like a sputtering fool. I have never been in this position in front of an audience, so I have no practice at it. But, considering how hard it is for me to talk in front of an audience when the situation is good, I can not imagine how it would be to confront a person like this in front of an audience. The best defense for this, I think, is thinking it through ahead of time. Nina's suggestions for this would be perfect. I hope, I hope I will never be in that position, but on the other hand, I do wish to speak in front of audiences someday, so, if I actually do that, I better get ready–right?! Have you been in this position in front of an audience?
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        1. Am used to giving speeches in front of prominent audiences. Fortunately I have never been confronted by a bully when doing so. If I was I would try, if possible, to ignore the bully. If not, I presume asking questions to disarm the bully would be the best way to defuse them.

  42. One of the ways I found to be most effective in dealing with difficult people is to ask for their opinions and suggestions. Most of the difficult people I encounter are those that complain a lot about anything and everything. When I politely and thoughtfully ask them for suggestions on how to deal with the situation that they are complaining about, more often than not, they would act shock and taken aback and eventually shut up and stop.
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    1. Good strategy, Adeline. Do they often have a solution for what they are complaining about? Would be interested in knowing how do you deal with people who attack you in order to take their frustrations out on you?

      1. You know, that's the funny part, Catarina. More often than not, when you throw the ball over at their corner, they end up getting quiet or they try to throw the ball back to the other person's corner by claiming that it's not their responsibility. The moment they say that, that's my cue to politely tell them that they keep quiet, listen and wait for whoever is talking (me or someone else) to finish. Then ask the questions after.
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