Communicator - Volume 3 No. 3 -  June 2002

Leadership Skills
Working With Difficult People

By Dick Mooney

The world must be full of "difficult" people. If you don't believe it, do an Internet search for "handling difficult people" and you will find literally hundreds of Web sites--most of them advertising books and workshops for sale. This must be a universal problem because a lot of people seem to be making good money from telling others how to deal with it. Unfortunately, as a support group leader, dealing with these people won't provide you with any income, but you will still have them in your groups (or already do!) and you must find a way to deal with them.

Who are these difficult people? Lee Nattress, in the support group leaders' workshop he conducted at the Kansas City annual meeting, described them as those who are overly talkative, highly argumentative, ramblers, obstinate, gripers and whiners, definitely wrong, off the subject, silent, and those who insist on conducting side conversations. Sound familiar? How many of these folks do you encounter in your groups? God forbid, there may even be some on your board!

If working with these people were easy, there wouldn't be a whole industry devoted to teaching "dealing skills" to managers and leaders. Nevertheless, people like this disrupt your meetings, they stand in your way of accomplishing what you think is best for the group, and you have to try to do something constructive about it. I hope there are some ideas in this article that will help. First, though, let's look at some generic issues surrounding this problem. Thinking about the "difficult people" problem in these ways may provide you with some insights into solutions that you haven't thought of before and some that may work well for you.

The Control Issue - The first and most important thing you must understand is that you have no control over difficult people. They are the only ones who control their behavior. You only have control over your own behavior. So the trick is for you to behave toward them in such a way that will encourage them to modify their behavior and become "good citizens." Understanding this will lead you to the conclusions that you will not always be successful and that you will have to deal with your own frustration in those cases. 

The Conflict Issue - One way to look at this is that working successfully with difficult people is essentially an exercise in conflict management. The behaviors difficult people exhibit may be in conflict with the behaviors you would like them to exhibit, or think they should exhibit. They may be in conflict with the smooth conduct of your members' and board meetings, and they may be in conflict with your ideas and the actions you feel you must take as leader to manage your group's affairs effectively. If these conflicts didn't exist, you would not label these people "difficult." 

The Power Issue - Working successfully with difficult people is also an exercise in managing your leadership power. As leader, you are the one who has legitimate power. You have been formally elected or appointed to be responsible for the effective management of the group and, presumably, you have the commensurate authority (i.e., "power") to do all those things necessary to fulfill your responsibility. You exercise your power in many, often subtle, ways. You lead group meetings, you chair board meetings, and you take the lead in planning and implementing the changes and improvements necessary to assure that the group will survive and prosper. The behaviors of difficult people could be seen as attempts to wrest some of your power away from you. Even if that may not be their conscious motive, that is the effect. When difficult people ramble on and on or change the subject during group discussions, they are seizing power to lead the meeting that has not been legitimately vested in them. The same is true in board meetings. When other board members become argumentative or obstinate, they may be trying to challenge your power as leader. 

Another dimension to the power issue is that rank-and file group members expect you to exercise your power as leader to deal effectively with people whose behavior is disrupting and spoiling their enjoyment of meetings. If you ignore these situations, you may do so at the cost of the respect your good citizens have for you as their leader.

The Negotiation Issue - Negotiation is a process of reconciling differences and conflicts between two or more parties. In the commercial world, the differences often concern price; one party wanting to increase it and one party wanting it reduced. In the support group leader world, the differences often involve organizational plans, policies, procedures, or control issues. As leader, there are conditions you think should exist to assure that the group's business and meetings will run smoothly. You see your position as "right," but others, the "difficult" ones, probably are equally enthusiastic about the rightness of their positions. The key to reconciling these differences successfully is to find some middle ground where both parties can feel "right," often called a win-win situation.

The Ego Issue - "Ego involvement" always exists and should be recognized for what it is. If I want something that the group doesn't truly need, I am ego involved. If I see interruptions or side conversations at meetings as problems that adversely affect me rather than the group, I am ego involved. It is impossible not to be ego involved to some extent. But it is possible--essential, in fact--not to allow that involvement to drive our behavior and blind us to solutions that are best for the group.

Some Strategies

Due to the magnitude and complexity of this problem, it's completely impossible for any article, book, or workshop to provide "formula" approaches that will work with all difficult people in all situations. Therefore, in this section I prefer to talk about "strategies."

Use the Right Size Tool - When people interrupt the meeting with endless comments, side discussions, off-subject statements, or the like, it's best to try the most benign responses first, only escalating to more positive intervention if the gentle approach isn't effective. In fact, your first response might not be verbal at all. For example, I have been successful in squelching people who interrupt by simply making a "stop" or "time" signal at them with my hands. I have also been able to control people who are having a side conversation by simply walking to where they are seated and standing there a while. Remember, if you always jump in with your sharpest tool first you may begin to look like a bully.

Smile - Even the sharpest comment you can make to someone who is seriously disrupting a meeting can be softened with a smile. Remember, your goal is to encourage a change in their behavior, not chew them out.

Be Assertive - The classic "assertive" technique involves couching messages in "I" terms rather than "you" terms, and in making clear requests. Saying, "You are disrupting the meeting" can be seen as accusatory and invites defense and argument. Saying, "I feel _____ when you do that" labels the problem as yours and is hard for the other person to take offense or argue with. If the "I" message defines the problem, the clear request tells what you want the other person to do about it. Statements such as, "I would like you to wait for your turn to speak" or "Next time, I would like you to respect the views of the others by not interrupting them" leave no doubt about what you are requesting the other person to do.

Dealing With the Aggressor - Aggressive people are inclined to hate wimps. Therefore, ignoring or retreating from these people is probably not a good idea. The "peace at any cost" principle usually has enormous hidden, downstream costs. It is best to confront the issue involved head on. Be direct. Don't beat around the bush. Stand up for yourself. But being aggressive in return never works. Use the assertive technique instead.

Dealing With the "Know It All" - You have probably encountered those who know everything and don't hesitate to tell everyone else about it. These characters either do know a lot (in which case you might use them as resources or share the spotlight with them from time to time), only think they know a lot but who are usually wrong (in which case you can tell them you appreciate their opinion but don't agree with it), or who dominate the discussion (in which case you can make a clear request for them to allow others to have their say). Whatever you do, avoid ego involvement and arguing your point. You will only waste a lot of the group's time and probably won't change their opinion that they are still "right."

Avoid Labeling People - When someone interrupts frequently and you label them as "an interrupter," even unconsciously, you will always look for that behavior from them and each time you see it your opinion of them will be reinforced. These kinds of labels tend to be self-fulfilling. Worse, you probably won't notice when they don't interrupt.

Reinforce Desired Behavior - When trying to motivate people to behave correctly, it's a proven fact that criticizing undesired behavior isn't nearly as effective as praising desired behavior. I used to tell my subordinate managers, "Catch your people doing something right and praise them for it. Pretty soon, they will be fighting to do only right things." To use a previous example, if there is someone in your group who interrupts frequently, try to catch them after a meeting when they have not interrupted and say something reinforcing like, "I appreciate that you gave me more time to explain the topic tonight before commenting on the material. That certainly made it easier for me to present the subject in its entirety."

Try Humor - Sometimes humor, provided that it isn't at the other person's expense, is an effective way to deal with difficult behaviors. Once, I told a meeting participant who was criticizing me mercilessly, "You can continue talking to me that way but I'll still be nice to you (smile)." People who espouse extreme opinions endlessly might be told, "You really have to learn not to mince your words (smile)." Humor directed at oneself is seldom dangerous, as in "I don't agree with you but, then, what do I know (smile)?" Use humor carefully. It's easy for humor to masquerade as sarcasm or to diminish the other person. And never forget to smile. It helps to identify your intent to be humorous.

Be Flexible - If the goal of the meeting is to talk about the peer visitation program but everyone seems to want to discuss phantom pain, sometimes it's wiser to allow the agenda switch than label everyone as "difficult" and insist on pulling them back to the "correct" subject.

Continue Discussions Later - Rather than trying to squelch persistent off-the-subject comments, especially when nothing you say seems to work, you can always say, "I want to understand your viewpoint better, so let's get together after the meeting and talk about it then."

Show Respect - The essential common thread in all strategies for dealing with difficult people must be always to be respectful. You can't expect others to respect you if you are disrespectful to them. They may be wrong, they may be problems, they may be disruptive, but they are still human beings and participants in your group. Responses that insult or diminish them will seldom be effective and will ultimately reflect badly on you. 

No article such as this would be complete without a few examples from an experienced support group leader of the kinds of strategies that have worked for them . Dee Malchow, a new Communicator correspondent beginning with the April issue and a long-time support group leader, offers the following:

Side Conversations - I raise my hand (like "Stop!") and say, " Oh, I want to hear what you both have to say. Let's let Barbara finish and then we'll check in with you two." Nobody gets insulted this way and it seems to minimize the number of side conversations.

Extensive Talkers - I will interrupt with a comment like, "Wow, it sounds like you've got a lot of legitimate issues going on (then I look at the clock or my watch) but I really want to make sure everyone gets a chance to share. So we need to move on to Ben."

Whiners - Praise sometimes works with whiners. We had the "King of Whiners" in our group and I took it as a challenge to find some positive thing to acknowledge about him at each meeting. The first time, I found that he had mastered the system of getting a ride to meetings from public assistance. I'd never heard of anyone accomplishing that before so I gave him great praise for it. After I had done this kind of thing at several meetings he started coming in with positive reports; "I stood yesterday;" "A neighbor brought my kitty for a visit;" "My back pain is improving." He never did turn into what I'd call an optimist, but at least his whining greatly diminished.


Finally, have patience and be of good cheer. Dealing successfully with difficult people is really hard. If at first you don't succeed, keep trying. Your members will understand what you're attempting to do and will admire you for it. Remember that the best home-run hitters in baseball are also the ones who strike out the most--but they stay in the game. They keep trying.

The difficult people in your life will not go away. You will win some and lose some. But if you always keep in mind that 1) difficult people are difficult because they choose to be difficult, 2) whatever you do, you cannot control their choices--you can only influence them, and 3) if you don't throw in the towel but keep trying, you will at least be able to sleep well knowing that you've done the best you could.

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