How to deal with difficult people

Assertiveness is the balance of valuing and speaking up for yourself and seeking to understand the other person in an interaction under an “umbrella” of respect. It’s hard to respect someone if you just see him or her as exhibiting bad behaviour.

Mastering assertive behaviours means you learn to cope and handle criticism, disagreement and unacceptable behaviours calmly and confidently with a view to being heard and getting what you want respectfully. Since you confidently voice your views, empathise and set boundaries, you will be easier to get along with and vice versa. You are more likely to get the outcome(s) you desire and not be walked over, bullied or put down. For most of us, though, assertiveness is a skill that needs to be learned and it is usually in the face of difficult behaviour from others that we learn it.

Coping with passive aggression

Covert or passive-aggressive bullying behaviour includes objects left on your desk or in your office frequently going missing; being left out of important meetings where you could contribute; or the information you need never getting to you. This is stressful because the result of this passive bullying is that you are unable to be as productive as you’d like.

Handling “passive aggressive” behaviour requires you to be brave. To think calmly and logically about what is going on. Think like a detective! What are the reasons behind this negative behaviour? What’s the real problem? Spend a moment or two checking out the possibility that you could be contributing to this unacceptable situation.

All this rationality requires you to move to a different position and “take off” in your mind so you can view the situation dispassionately, like being in a helicopter.

To deal with this, you can use a technique called “perceptual positions”. First position is your needs, second position is the other person’s needs and third position is seeking options to satisfy both people. Imagine you are up in a helicopter looking down at the two of you. Take it as high as you like so you are disassociated from the feelings involved in first position and second position. Remember, your aim is to secure a positive outcome for both parties.

In the helicopter you can generate ideas, options and solutions. After some time in the helicopter, go back to “first position” to see how these solutions work for you, then “second position” to see how these solutions would work for the other person. If you find the solutions don’t work for either you or the other person, then revisit the “helicopter” viewpoint for more ideas and options.

Clear communication

A golden rule for successful relationships is to speak in a clear, direct and honest manner to the person who can solve the problem or challenge. Having understood the situation as best you can, make an appointment with the person you believe is responsible, then you are sure to have the person’s attention. In a calm and resourceful state, have a conversation. It’s important to clearly have in your mind your strategies for communicating the issues at hand.

To begin, set the scene. You might say, “I’d like to talk to you about … my missing chair and desktop tools.” Give them the benefit of the doubt: maybe they are unaware of how their behaviour is affecting you and others. Calmly, professionally and respectfully, say, “I’m sure you don’t realise the effect on my productivity when I can’t locate the tools to do my work.”

Alternatively, you might say, “I feel frustrated when I can’t find my chair/my stapler and it is affecting my productivity, which has an impact on you, too.” Having stated the problem, you also need to ask for action. You might say, “I would appreciate it if you would leave all my belongings exactly where they are. Will you do this?” In saying this you are asking them for a commitment.

Always be sure to state what you want in the positive as our subconscious mind thinks in pictures, which means it doesn’t understand “don’t”. So saying “don’t touch my things” is subliminally interpreted as “touch my things”. If everyone learnt to ask for what they want, and not what they don’t want, there would be far more collaboration and co-operation and productivity.

You can break your communication down into a formula we will call the “4+2 formula”.

Four is:

1. When I … (describe the situation that is a problem as a video camera would see it)

2. I feel … (one word to communicate what the situation means to you)

3. because I … (the effect on you)

4. so what I’d like is … (the behaviour you want expressed positively)

The “plus 2” is:

1. Ask for a commitment and (if unforthcoming)

2. Negotiate

Write the formula for your situation and practise in front of a mirror so your body language is congruent with your words and their delivery. Once you are comfortable with the basic formula, you can play around with the order that best suits the occasion. For example, you may start with your feelings (step 2), leave out the reason (step 3) or frame up the 4+2 with a statement that values your relationship. Here is an example:

I really value our working relationship (frame up positively), so when I am left by myself to handle the extra workload (step 1 — concept, what the camera sees), I feel disappointed (step 2 — one true feeling) and what I’d like is for us to work together so we can both leave at a reasonable time (step 4 — the behaviour you want).

Will you work with me to do this? (Plus 1 — ask for the commitment.)

If they say yes, great. But if they make an excuse you need to stand your ground and negotiate. The best negotiators plan ahead and go to the second position to work out what the other person needs. This is known by the acronym WIIFY (What’s in it for you?). You may need to go to third position, “helicopter”, to get some ideas and check them out in second then first position so you get a mutually beneficial outcome.

You could say something like, “If you are able to help me this time I will help you the next time you need another pair of hands.”

When someone ignores you

When someone ignores you the first thing to do is … stop. Think. Ask yourself, “What’s happening here? What’s going on? What could be happening?”

Have you ever forgotten your contact lenses or glasses and can’t see beyond a metre or so? Have you ever been so preoccupied with your thoughts or worries that you are so internally focused you don’t see what is around you? If something like this is the case with the other person, their ignoring you has nothing to do with you.

Whether they are so self-absorbed or ignoring you is a deliberate choice; the next step is to get their attention. Use their name. This is the easiest way to get people’s attention. We are programmed to respond to our names. Then make direct eye contact. Touch is probably inappropriate and risky as it can be misinterpreted as aggressive. Once you have their attention, there are several options.

You could ask a question, pause and then listen to their response.

“Is there something wrong?”

“I feel you are ignoring me and I like to talk about what happened just now.”

“I feel you are not listening to my point of view.”

Or you could deliver, calmly and professionally, the 4+2 formula with “I” statements:

1. When I … am talking and you are looking away (what would a video camera see and hear — keeps it factual and real)

2. I feel … frustrated

3. because I … believe my input can make a difference to the outcome (impact)

4. so I would like … for us both to discuss the situation openly. (the positive behaviour you desire)

Plus 2:

1. Is this OK (with you) OR Will you do this? Get the commitment and then they are more likely to follow through.

2. And if not, negotiate to find what is acceptable to you both.

Dealing with arguments

Nobody likes to be told what to do, or how to think, and everybody has a point of view (POV). When people express their POV and it’s different from yours, you have a choice. You can “jump in” and attack and express your POV aggressively, or defend yourself and your POV, or say nothing.

All these responses close down communication flow. There is a more productive alternative that leads to more co-operation and understanding, which is to use an “assertive aikido approach”. This is where you centre, breathe, focus on being calm and work with their energy and flow. You can apply this aikido approach as follows:

Your mind. Know and accept that you and everyone else have a right to their point of view. So get curious, suspend your judgement and listen.

Behaviour. Actively listen to understand and learn. This happens naturally when you are interested. Lean forward, look at them and mirror their body language, but with less intensity if they are angry.

Emotion. Breathe and centre yourself to calm your brain’s amygdala, to let it know you feel safe.

Language. Match their rate of speech. As you listen, use minimal encouragers, “umm”, “oh”, “tell me more”. Check in with the other person so that what you heard is what they said. Reflect, paraphrase and summarise what you heard concisely.

Another technique to help you when arguments arise is to distinguish between facts, feelings and perceptions.

Facts. Challenge and clarify to accept facts. This is the forte of the logical left hemisphere and pre-frontal cortex.

Feelings. Acknowledge how it is for them — reflect feelings. “You sound really frustrated about that.” “I can hear the frustration in your voice.” “You seem very put out about what just happened.” “I sense you are very concerned with this situation.” “I understand the difficulty this has caused you.”

Perceptions. We all see the world through our own filters of experience, expectations, education, culture, convictions … so get curious and explore perceptions with what and how questions. “That’s interesting — how does that work for you?” “What happened?” “What happened then?” “What led to this situation?” “How can we move forward?”

Once you have genuinely followed these steps you can frame up the conversation with, “I see things differently and I am happy to listen to your point of view and then I’d like you to listen to my view.” After they have said their piece, say, “I hear what you saying …” and concisely paraphrase the content to their satisfaction, and then add, “I see things differently. I’d like you to hear my perspective …”, assuming, of course, that you do see things differently.

As you actively listen, then reflect, clarify and summarise with empathy and respect; you are seeking yeses. Nods and yeses confirm your correct understanding of the situation from their perspective. Acknowledge their feelings and the content, and then redirect to explore options and summarise as you move to agreement and mutually acceptable and actionable outcomes.

Coping with criticism

When someone criticises you, then you need to get resourceful: be calm, be centred, breathe and be solution-focused. Then check in with yourself. Is there any truth in what they are saying? How valid are the comments? Your response will be different if the criticism is untrue, partly true or true. It depends on who is saying it and how it best suits the situation. Here are some ways to respond to the varying scenarios:

Untrue. “I disagree. I’m surprised you said …”, then be silent while they reply.

Invite clarification. “Will you tell me what I specifically did that concerns you?” or “Who exactly complained about my behaviour?”

For example, “They say your office/home/study/bedroom/place is like a tip!”

First reflect. “You think this place could be tidier?” or “Can you give me an example of this?”

Partly true. “Yes, but I know where everything is.”

True! Agree and seek agreement to work on the situation together. “You’re right. The study is a mess. And I plan to clear it up. Will you help me?” or “Let’s get organised” or “Let’s set aside Saturday morning to clear it up.”

Alternatively, you could apply the 4+2 formula for handling criticism:

1. When I … hear you call me lazy/untidy/not thoughtful

2. I feel … frustrated

3. because I … am doing my best as I know where everything is

4. and I would like … some support to help me do my job better/to clear up the room/for you to understand my system

Plus 2:

1. Is this OK (with you)?/Will you help/support me?

2. Negotiate what is acceptable.

Remember, the keys are the “I” statements, keeping them factual and real, and delivering your message calmly and professionally.

On some occasions when dealing with criticism, it can be appropriate to “fog” the situation. So you may say, “You may be right/you’re probably right”, but you stay doing exactly the same behaviour as before. This is a very passive technique and it is nearly always better to be clear, direct and honest. However, if your energy levels are low and it is really not important to you, then the fog technique may be appropriate.

The bottom line

In a nutshell, to be assertive when dealing with difficult people you need to be congruent in thought, word and deed. To do this, you need to accept yourself, believe in your self-worth, care for yourself, be aware of what you want and ethically use a wide variety of techniques for building rapport to respectfully relate to other people for mutual reward and success. So use respectful language and “I” statements that offer others a chance to “save face” and say and do the right thing next time.

The bottom line to remember in any difficult situation is, if something isn’t working, try something else. Prepare, practise and your confidence will grow. The success you experience will make your life easier, more enjoyable and productive for you and the important people in your life.


Yvonne Collier CSP is an international trainer, facilitator, trainer, author and coach specialising in assertive skills. Her company, MaddisonTraining, helps people produce profitable relationships. Contact Yvonne on +61 2 9904 3341. W:,

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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