3 Ways to Deal with a Difficult Person
These expert tricks for dealing with difficult people will help you minimize the impact of jerks on your life—or maybe even avoid them altogether.
How to deal with difficult people
For Chantal Berube*, the devil wore Jones New York instead of Prada. In the fall of 2015, the 52-year-old fundraiser had been in her new job for only a few weeks when she realized that her boss, the non-profit’s executive director, was going to be a challenge to deal with.
“When I interviewed for the position, she seemed totally fine,” says Berube. “But I got in there and realized she’s a jerk. You couldn’t reason with her. She wouldn’t listen to anyone, wouldn’t take any advice.”
Berube considered her options. She was in a senior position so felt she had some sway. She contemplated suggesting her boss get management training, but a leadership consultant she spoke to cautioned her against wasting her energy on someone who had already shown they wouldn’t pay attention. The advice was wise, but it meant Berube needed to figure out how to deal with a difficult person on a daily basis.
Existing in the world means you’ll inevitably come into contact with a jerk—or at least jerky behaviour from an otherwise decent person. Whether the unpleasant encounters happen at work, while running errands or in your own home, here are some strategies and skills to cut them short, and minimize their impact on you.
*Name has been changed.
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Limit your exposure
Many of us spend most of our waking hours on the job, where hierarchies and egos can result in the work jerk. There are the backstabbers, the condescenders, the credit stealers and, of course, those who act like angels when the boss is around and turn sour as soon as she’s gone.
“Everyone can be a jerk under the right or wrong circumstances. How you respond depends on who they are and the power dynamics,” says Robert Sutton, author of 2018’s The A**hole Survival Guide.
Employees in supervisory positions can rally for anti-jerk policies, making civility a stated workplace value and establishing consequences for hostile behaviour. But for those taking abuse from a higher-up, Sutton suggests collecting solid evidence—emails and accounts from others—before meeting with human resources about the issue. He warns, however, that they may want to protect the organization instead of you.
If you don’t think you’re going to be able to change your situation, there are still things you can do to tactfully deal with a difficult person. “Treat the nasty behaviour like kryptonite and try to have as little exposure as possible,” says Sutton.
One way, he says, is to slow the rhythm of your communication with a problem person. He uses the example of a friend with a demanding thesis supervisor who would send frequent and unfriendly emails at all hours of the day and night. Rather than respond immediately, the friend would delay writing back, effectively taking some control over the pace of the negativity.
Sutton also recommends practising what he calls “mind tricks to protect your soul.” If you’re in a meeting presided over by a jerk, try temporal distancing: imagine yourself in the not-so-distant future, somewhere far away from the current situation. Or reframe the moment by imagining you’re a leading scientist in the field of jerkology, observing a fascinating subject with curiosity and dispassion.
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The dating scene is another environment where you’re likely to run into rude behaviour, whether it’s the woman who picks up her phone more often than her fork—or her side of the conversation—or the guy whose every comment seems to be aimed at deflating your confidence. It can make you want to just give up.
While the rise of online dating has increased the likelihood of encounters with jerks, Dr. Lew Bayer, co-founder of Civility Experts in Winnipeg, says the higher supply has a positive side. “It also means that the dating pool has gotten enormous, and we shouldn’t have to put up with jerky behaviour.”
How do you spot a creep early enough to not waste your time? “Some of the warning signs relate to social protocol,” says Bayer. Poor table manners, being rude to the server and arriving late are classic red flags. “It’s also a bad sign when someone makes an obvious error but they don’t bother to apologize, or they opt not to deal with it and simply say, ‘I am what I am.’”
Dating is all about being open and seeking connection, so it can be hard to know when to draw the line. It’s easy to make excuses for someone, like attributing their bad behaviour to nervousness. But Bayer thinks it’s best to be proactive: “It’s not good personal practice to accept disrespect. It plays hard on our self-esteem.”
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Although total avoidance is advisable with many jerks, if you know the person and think their meanness is situational, it could be worth attempting to help them be better.
Both Bayer and Sutton say that, in some cases, having a respectful conversation that addresses the issue head-on can be fruitful.
Sometimes, says Sutton, “People who leave others demeaned and de-energized don’t realize they’re doing it.” They might be reacting to a stressful situation, or they could have caught their jerkiness from someone else in their life. (Studies have shown that bad behaviour is contagious.) Putting in the effort to bring to their attention how they’re making others feel can be all it takes to spark a change.
Bayer has heard from clients who tell her that these kinds of talks are difficult. She recommends trying to avoid blaming language by leaving out the sometimes-accusatory “you” pronoun and instead focusing on providing examples of how the person’s behaviour affects you and others, and the outcome you’re looking for.
For Berube, a confrontation wasn’t in the cards. She decided to move on to save her sanity, and her reputation. Thankfully, she’s now in a workplace with a much more positive culture and colleagues. “Human beings are such terribly flawed creatures and are bound to be jerks from time to time,” she says. “The key is to spot it early, figure out if it’s a one-off or a pattern of behaviour—and whether it can be fixed—and then decide if you can realistically continue on with whatever relationship you have with that person.”
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