Dealing With Difficult People

Some people are exceptionally difficult to get along with.  They complain, threaten and bluster, sometimes withdrawing, at other times becoming intimidating.  We leave such interactions frustrated, angry, guilty, and drained. 

We can all be annoying, irritable, indecisive, passive or hostile when overly stressed or threatened. But difficult people exhibit such behaviors regularly.
The most common kinds of difficult behavior are

  • Hostility, aggression and threats. Such behavior is really motivated by fear. Although aggressive people may seem to be attacking, they think they’re defending against a threat.
  • Whining and complaining to avoid responsibility or get attention. Such behavior is irritating and frustrating.

Lying and evasiveness. Some people will lie to avoid others anger or disappointment. Others become evasive when they don’t know the answer to a question or can’t honestly say what they think others want to hear. People are angry and hurt when lies are revealed, and are confused by evasions.

Passivity. Fear of being criticized or hurt can become so great it’s paralyzing. Such behavior is frustrating to others as they try to draw a response from an unresponsive person.

Attention-seeking. People who are unhappy or insecure can be relentless in their pressure for sympathy, approval and reassurance. They ask over and over for approval and acceptance, draining our energy and patience.

Procrastination. Whether out of fear of making mistakes or as indirect ways of expressing anger, procrastination drives other people crazy! Reactions range from irritation to exasperation to fury, depending upon how much inconvenience the procrastination has caused.

The way we feel about such difficult behavior determines whether we retain control of the situation or hand it over to the difficult person.


The discomfort caused by Difficult People comes partly from their behavior and partly from our thoughts and feelings about them. You can reduce your discomfort by…

  • Shifting the way you see difficult people. It’s a common misconception that people who are difficult know what they’re doing and are in control of the situation. In truth people usually act” difficult” when they feel helpless and threatened.

    Difficult people are unhappy people. Difficult behavior stems not from a desire to frustrate others but from a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. Fear and defensiveness caused by disappointment and self-doubt plague difficult people until they become their own worst enemies. They wind up alienating people when what they really want is to be loved.

    When you look at difficult people sympathetically, you can see that the hostile bully is actually afraid of being criticized or controlled; the constant complainer feels unappreciated and unloved; and the procrastinator is afraid of losing approval or affection.

  • Knowing your own “hot buttons” and doing all you can to disarm them. Realize that you have as much personal power as anyone else. No one can have any more control over you than you give him or her. When you feel secure and self-confident you’re less defensive and better able to have empathy for others.


Bosses who are hard to get along with are one of the hardest kinds of people to deal with because of the power differential between boss and employee. Management styles that cause problems include:

  • Controlling bosses want everything done “their way,” and communication with employees is one-way, from boss to employee. These bosses are usually so afraid of making a mistake that they will only do things the way they’ve always been done.
  • Pleaser bosses are so anxious to be liked that they try to accommodate everyone’s ideas and wishes. They are confusing to work for because they do not make their expectations clear. Communication is one way, from others to the boss.
  • Defensive bosses try to keep things running smoothly by ignoring or short-circuiting problems. Instead of communicating, they withdraw, so communication is again one-way, from the boss to employees.

People work best when they feel like they are working with their boss, not for him/her. In order to manage effectively, bosses must develop two-way communication with employees so that their ideas and viewpoints can be considered before plans are made.


It’s important to be able to tell the difference between a basically nice person who’s behaving badly because they’re having a bad day and a person for whom every day is a bad day! The basically nice person deserves and will be grateful for your sympathy and understanding. A Difficult Person may see sympathy as permission to go on being difficult!

Here are ways in which Difficult People and people having a difficult day differ:
People having a bad day…

  • Know they are acting badly.
  • Are embarrassed by their bad behavior.
  • Usually calm down when others offer help or sympathy.
  • Are regretful and apologize sincerely when they realize they’ve hurt others.
  • Alter their future behavior based on what they’ve learned from past experience.

Difficult People…

  • See nothing wrong with their behavior, even when they know that other people find it offensive.
  • Feel no regret for their actions.
  • Apologize to keep the peace and avoid conflict without really understanding why they were hurtful.
  • Usually shift to a new complaint rather than being calmed by offers of help or sympathy.
  • Do not learn from experience and repeat the same bad behavior again and again.


Any parent will tell you that some of their children are more difficult than others. Happily, there are things you can do to keep difficult children from growing into difficult adults.

  • Set reasonable, consistent limits with appropriate consequences. When Johnny hits a playmate, it makes more sense to send him to time-out than to take away his television privileges.
  • Enforce limits promptly. Respond at the first sign of trouble instead of waiting until you’re angry and apt to over-react. If you don’t react to the small tantrums, children will move on to more dramatic means of seeing whether you mean what you say.
  • Take charge. Don’t get involved in power struggles with your children. If you allow yourself to be drawn into bickering with your children or punish them out of anger instead of love, they’ll see you as a peer instead of an authority figure.
  • Have confidence in you parenting skills. If you believe you’re in charge, your child will believe it, too. If you allow yourself to be bullied or dissuaded when you set limits, the child will know he’s in the driver’s seat!
  • Criticize the behavior, not the child. Children often behave badly because they’ve come to believe that they are bad. Make it clear that even when you don’t like what they do, you still love them.
  • Insist that children take responsibility for their actions. The earlier difficult children learn that there is a consequence to their actions, the easier their adult life will be.


We can’t change people who are difficult, but we can do a lot to decrease our discomfort when we’re around them by taking charge of the situation. Here are some ways you can do that:

When someone is being threatening or intimidating, respond to the way he’s talking to you rather than what he’s saying. “Don’t talk to me that way; I deserve respect as much as you do.”

When you’re dealing with a chronic complainer, listen quietly and then repeat your request for action, phrasing your question, “will you…?” Don’t give up until they answer your question directly. Few people are willing to say “no” flatly, so if they say, “Yes,” ask when they will do it.

If someone seems to be evasive or if you suspect they are actually lying, don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as necessary until you’re satisfied you have the whole, truthful answer.

Outflank procrastinators by setting deadlines that are well in advance of when you need something done. They’ll still procrastinate, but you’ll be in charge because you have anticipated it. This also works well with people who are always late for appointments. Avoid the irritation caused by people who frequently interrupt you with unnecessary questions by planning to give them some positive attention each day, before they ask for it. Give them sincere compliments, or ask how their day was: you’ll prevent many interruptions before they start!

Passive people who are afraid of being criticized for making mistakes often blossom when given patience, encouragement, praise, and support.
When people are difficult, their behavior is not aimed at you in particular; they’re just being themselves, reacting more to their own doubts and fears than to the world around them. They’re not trying to make you unhappy, but trying to protect themselves.


Widely disparate difficult behaviors often arise from the same issue. For instance, both boastful over-confidence and self-effacing indecisiveness are caused by low self-esteem. In the same way…

  • Both aloof & effusive people struggle with how to express emotion appropriately.
  • Authoritarian and unorganized people have different views of control.
  • Perfectionists and slobs struggle with how to create order.
  • Workaholics and procrastinators’ lives are ruled by time.


Why do certain kinds of people “get to you” and others don’t? Knowing what your own “hot buttons” are will give you more control. Some of the most common are…

  • Unrealistic expectations. Expecting more than a particular person is capable of giving sets you up for frustration.
  • Low self-esteem. If you feel unimportant and helpless, you’ll take difficult people’s behavior personally and be threatened by it. If you’re self-confident, you’ll know it has little to do with you.
  • Lack of action. The greatest source of stress is identifying a problem but doing nothing about it. When you’re irritated by someone’s difficult behavior, but don’t confront it, your frustration will only increase.
  • Reminders. People who are particularly hard to take may be similar to a parent or someone else in your past that hurt or frustrated you. Talking with a professional counselor can help you resolve these old feelings so that your “hot button” isn’t so easy to push.

Who We Are

About Kim K. Shirin, Ph.D

Kim K. Shirin, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who has his doctorate in Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychological assessment. Dr. Kim K. Shirin specializes in Forensic Evaluations and Child Custody Evaluations. Dr. Shirin practices in Los Angeles County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, Kern County, San Diego County, Ventura County, Fresno County and Orange County.


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