Life Lessons in the Real World

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How to Deal with Difficult People Vol. 1

bully.jpgIs your boss driving you crazy? Are your co-workers getting on your last nerve?

If you need help coping with difficult people, check out my tips for dealing with these 4 difficult personality types: the bully, the whiner, the gossip, and the know-it-all.

Difficult Personality #1: The Bully

Bullies in a professional environment have learned to be successful over a period of years by pushing people around.

I once worked with a hotheaded consultant (we’ll call her Sue) who enjoyed calling me names, insulting me, and dismissing my ideas. My first few months on the job, I learned to fear and loathe her.

Every Friday morning, like clockwork, she would call me on the phone and say, “John, how’s that project coming along?”

Whenever I admitted my team was still behind schedule, she would launch into a tirade of Biblical proportions. I would sit there, listening to the rabid sound of her wailing, emotionally exhausted, wishing she’d go away. “Idiot!” she would hiss.

Truth be told, my team was behind schedule for good reason: there was a design flaw in a legacy system (through no fault of our own) that we needed extra time to fix. Unfortunately, Sue was too busy yelling to listen. Whenever I tried to tell her what was going on, she’d say, “John, just focus on the requirements. Hit the due date!”

But here’s the thing about bullies: If you don’t stand up to them, they’ll ignore everything you say, as if you (and your point of view) simply do not exist. The bully recognizes two types of people: weak and strong. The weak do not matter.

Because the bully is accustomed to people clamming up, running away, or throwing a fit in reaction to her tirades, you must avoid these responses when you stand up to her.

Stay calm. Focus on the sound of your voice and your body posture to make both as relaxed and confident as possible. Firmly (but politely) express your ideas to the bully, even if she has dismissed you.

When you confront her, never attack her ideas directly. Carefully explain that you understand and appreciate her point of view, then proceed to use words like “I feel that,” or, “In my opinion,” to validate your own perspective without undermining hers.

If you’re successful at standing up to the bully without posing a threat, don’t be surprised if she suddenly wants to be your friend. That’s the weird thing about bullies. Once you prove you’re strong, they suddenly start acting like they need your approval.

Every Friday when Sue called me for an update, I started saying, “Listen, Sue, I hear what you’re saying about the importance of hitting our due date. But all of my professional experience tells me it’s important to fix the legacy system too – if we don’t, I feel the application will crash.”

The first time I tried explaining this to her, she interrupted me and started yelling again. So I quickly cut her off in a firm voice and said, “Sue, you interrupted me. I expect you to listen to everything I have to say before you make up your mind.”

Once I proved to her that my opinions were worth listening to and that I was willing to stand up to her in order to express them, she became one of my best friends and biggest cheerleaders.

Difficult Personality #2: The Whiner

Whiners turn complaining into a way of life.

As a general rule, listening to the complaints of peers and subordinates is a good idea because they offer fertile ground for innovation and improvement. But on my projects, I had a special rule for whiners: Don’t complain unless you’re prepared to drive a solution.

Whiners view themselves as helpless. That’s why they’re complaining to you –because they think it’s your job to fix their problem. By helping the whiner create a solution, you help him understand his own power and responsibility.

If he’s unable to provide a solution, ask him to track data pertaining to the problem for the next couple of weeks and to send it to you in writing. Many whiners won’t do this, meaning you’ll never hear from them again. If they do, help them come up with ideas for a solution based on the data they’ve collected.

Difficult Personality #3: The Gossip

The gossip flits around the office, from cube to cube, spreading rumor, opinion, and general ill will about everyone she knows.

One way to deal with the gossip is to stay out of her way. I learned to put on my headphones whenever my office gossip came around, concentrating on my work until she went away.

If you can’t completely avoid her, try discouraging her from spreading her web of gossip near you by asking tough questions. For example, when Sally starts telling you all the things she hates about Jim, ask her if she’s bothered to tell Jim how she feels. If she says no (which she probably will), ask her why she’s telling you instead of dealing with the problem.

If you’re her peer, she may try to make you feel good by suggesting you’re in her circle of trust and that she’s sharing information with you because of your bond. But don’t be fooled – the gossip is driven by one motivation: the need to gossip – and you just happen to be in her path.

At my last job, I finally got tired of dealing with the office gossip and said to her, “Listen, what I’m about to say is intended to help you. But I honestly believe you’d be happier if you focused on the solution instead of the problem. Let me know if you want me to help you find a solution; otherwise, this conversation is not helping either one of us.”

If your gossip, like mine, doesn’t really want a solution, she’ll leave you alone after that. Of course, that won’t stop her from gossiping about you, which is one reason why it’s important to be polite and supportive (try smiling) when you express your opinions to her.

Difficult Personality #4: The Know-It-All

Genuine know-it-alls are smart people with perfectionist tendencies and a deep understanding of a topic. The know-it-all has learned to trust his own logic (read: not yours) as a survival mechanism. He believes he is in charge of his own destiny, and that his ability to understand the world is essential to who he is.

To the know-it-all, you’re a peon until you’ve established yourself as an expert authority figure.

If you’re arguing with a true know-it-all, there are 3 rules you should know:

  1. First, have all your ducks in a row before you start the conversation. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, the know-it-all will disregard you as incompetent.
  2. Do not contradict the know-it-all’s logic, as this will be seen as a personal attack. The know-it-all and his logic are tied up within in the same knot – do not try to untie this knot!
  3. Ask open ended questions to which you already know the answers, relying upon the know-it-all’s amazing ability to reason and pontificate to move him closer to your point of view.

If your point of view is logical, his personality will compel him to adopt it. If you’re point of view is not logical, you’ll soon find out why, which may provide you a starting point for your next persuasive conversation with the know-it-all.

By no means is this list of difficult personalities comprehensive. Just off the top of my head, I can think of 4 others: the slacker, the pot-shot artist, the hot-air artist (otherwise known as the pretend know-it-all), and the eternal pessimist. If there’s enough interest, we’ll tackle those 4 in a future article.

In the meantime, I hope my tips for handling workplace bullies, whiners, gossips, and know-it-alls will help you.  


28 Responses to “How to Deal with Difficult People Vol. 1”

  • Dave says:


  • The King says:

    True, I really want to know how to tackle the know it all (Showoff). I mean I have a solution – punching him/her in the face, but that’s not the best solution.

    Or is it?

  • JohnPlace says:

    Most likely not, King. :)

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for your enthusiasm, Dave. If we get enough interest, I’ll definitely consider it.

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  • Lyndee says:

    Count me among the interested parties in expounding on this great article. I am dealing with an ALPHA MALE in a power struggle to unseat me (in lead position) in our Class Reunion. He quit when he couldn’t get his way then came back with a damning email addressed to the Planning Committee accusing me of lack of leadership, finger pointing, unprofessional, rude, you name it, and calling for me to step down. He just described his own email. The grand finale’ in an ongoing series of takeover attempts. Like a cheater, they accuse the victim.

    I would love to see ALPHA MALES included in this series.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Lyndee. Oh, The Alpha personality is a *very* interesting one. And while more prevalent among males (in my experience), I’ve seen it in both genders — that unsavory need to dominate and control.

    That’s an excellent suggestion, Lyndee. And I think we have enough interest now that I’ll start work on a Vol. 2 shortly.

  • Lyndee says:

    Yes, I too, have seen it in both genders but as you point out it seems to be more prevalent in the male gender. Thank you for considering that one.

    Is there a general comments area where I can go and rave about your site? I love it! Thank you so much for all the great info!

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks Lyndee. I may eventually add a forum where you could rave all you wanted (which might make me blush and cast my eyes downward toward my shifting feet), but for now, I have no forum. :)

    If you really enjoy my site, you could help me by Stumbling my articles (if you’re a member of Stumble Upon) or share them with your friends on the other social networking sites (Reddit, Delicious, etc.)

    But of course, none of that is expected, since submissions to social networking sites should only be done out of a genuine desire to share — otherwise, it doesn’t work.

    Thanks for your kind words, Lyndee. If you haven’t already, feel free to subscribe to my feed via email or RSS.

    Take care!


  • chabuhi says:

    Well, I know you’ve said you have your quorum, but count me among those who would like to read about more personality types.

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  • Kate says:

    Wow. Your articles are very informative. This is exactly what I was looking for, something not commonly found when searching the web. Some good points with the know-it-all. But what about the hot-air artist? These are the characters I come up against most. Or to exaplin incase our ideas differ, a know-it-all that is completely illogical, or has no idea what they’re talking about, yet is convinced that their own knowledge is far superior to everyone elses.

  • woot says:

    YEAH MAN good post, and please post the NEXT 4 and MORE!!!!!

  • Christine says:

    Yes, please continue to the nexties!! THANKS

  • Jenny says:

    Jenny from Singapore, interesting article, looking forward to Vol. 2 about the other 4 :)

  • Imani says:

    Great list. I am interested in learning about the “eternal pessimist” and maybe also people who are very critical and judgmental.

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    Positive article! Now understand about this subject far better.

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  • Suzana says:

    Wow! You helped me a lot with the description of the know-it-all. I´m having difficulty with handling a person who insists she is driven only by logic and rational thoughts, which she announces with immense pride, so as to establish her superiority over other “not-so-rational” people. What she fails to perceive though is that her logic dismisses all subtlety and disconsiders the vast range of possibilities offered by the different degrees of uncertainty. Things are either one thing or its opposite. What is not totally right is totally wrong, and so on. It´s very frustrating to talk to her. She ridicules me a lot, makes fun of my way of wording things. I just can´t get through to her. It doesn´t really hurt me, since I know she is not attacking “me” per se. She is just attacking her perception of me, which is only sad because it prevents us from connecting and establishing any kind of rapport.
    Anyway… I think your description gave me a greater understanding of her personality type. I´ll think about it. Who knows, maybe I can get throught o her someday. Best regards.

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