How do you deal with difficult people at work? You know the people I’m talking about, right? People who are arrogant, bullies, they know it all, they’re always right, they won’t collaborate or compromise, they’re passive-aggressive and myriad other characteristics.
As salespeople, if we don’t like a person, we don’t have to engage them in the sales process. There are plenty of other people to sell to. However, we will inevitably encounter a person we must collaborate with regardless of personal feelings. I’m thinking about home office employees, underwriters, service providers, vendors, your own employees and other people you meet every day. They may be difficult, but we do have to deal with them. Now, many of these people are very helpful and it’s easy to collaborate with them. However, every group has its percentage of difficult people.
In my 40 years of work experience, I think I have seen all kinds of difficult people. On my very first job out of college, there was a bully who wouldn’t leave me alone. I dreaded going to work if I knew he was going to be there. Arrogant experts are probably the ones who cause my stomach to churn the most right now. They are always right, they know it all, and they talk down to others and generally show a total lack of respect for everyone around them.
Difficult people come in all different shapes, sizes and temperaments, and it is absolutely no fun to work with any of them. Some can be passive-aggressive, and others explosive. But one thing difficult people do have in common is narcissism.
Why do people behave like this?
I’ve concluded that difficult people are just people who choose to deal with life in ways that cause the rest of us grief. But why are they choosing to live life and interact in this difficult fashion? I believe it’s because they have found their own way to feel good about themselves. I’m not a psychologist, but my guess is that low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence play out in their behavior.
Difficult people want to be included in what is going on. They want to be in the “in crowd” and play with all the popular kids. They want to be respected for the value they bring to the table. They want others to trust them. They want to be promoted and move up in the organization. They want to be a positive part of the group they are in.
Isn’t that true for most of us? But somewhere along the line, difficult people got the wrong idea of how to go about it. The chances are they were treated badly somewhere in their career and they are modeling that bad behavior now, whether they realize it or not.
What can we do?
The main question is this: What should we do differently? How do you and I work with difficult people in a positive manner without going stark raving mad?
Keep in mind that you are not the one with the problem; the difficult person has the problem. You are not going to change their behavior. You can only change your behavior. If you change how you respond to a difficult person, you often will discover their behavior will improve.
There is one caveat: You must truly be sincere and act with integrity. If you’re playing a game or trying to use “technique” you’ll come off worse than a bad salesperson on a bad day at a bad used car lot. Be honestly sincere about trying to find win-win situations.
Here are some ideas you may want to consider when you find yourself working with someone exhibiting difficult behaviors.
 Communication is the key to any relationship. If you’re not careful, the relationship can go very wrong. Over-
communicate with the difficult person. Include them in everything you think they should be included in, and include them in as much of everything else you possibly can. Ask their opinion, a lot. Show them respect, especially in front of others. Listen to them, have a conversation, and listen some more. We all want to be heard.
 Don’t wimp out and become wishy-washy. Stand your ground but do it calmly. You should never raise your voice or lose control. Ask a lot of questions. Help the other person see the reasons why you are moving in the direction you are moving.
 Say please and thank you just like Mama taught you. Kindness will go a long way toward defusing difficult behavior.
 Garner more influence. People allow us to have influence with them because of the way they perceive us. And you can improve someone’s perception of you. The most important way to begin that process is to show the other person professional respect. Be nice and treat them fairly. Reciprocity is a source of power and influence that works. You be good to me, and I will be good to you.
 Get on the same side of the table as your difficult person. It’s called empathy, right? Put yourself in their position and see the situation from their point of view. I know it’s not the easiest thing to do. I also know that if you can defuse the situation before the explosion, you all will be much better off.
I remember calling an agent who was enraged with my department, and he had every right to be. He answered the phone and I said, “John, I understand that my department has cost you valuable time, they’ve been unhelpful, and if we don’t get this fixed it’s going to cost you big money. I’m just calling to apologize and tell you I will find a real solution to the problem today.” He was the nicest guy I spoke to that week.
I have one question for you now. Do you see yourself in the description of any of these difficult people? How are you treating the people around you, and is there an area where you can improve?
R. Morris Sims, MSM, CLU, ChFC, is the CEO of Sims Training and Consulting. He is the author of Practical Influence. He began his career as an agent with New York Life and, after 32 years, retired as the vice president and chief learning officer of the agency. Morris can be contacted at [email protected]k.com.