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The art of dealing with difficult people

We often encounter people who seem to make our working lives more difficult than necessary. Nancy Slessenger gives some easy-to-use advice on how to handle such situations.

In this article I'm going to look at three specific types of difficult behaviour that can cause problems - people who can't make decisions, people who fuss too much over detail, and bullying. For bullying, I've provided a checklist (See 3 Bullying below) so you can see if you recognise anyone like this (just one ticked box is enough)

1. People who just can't make decisions

Do you ever deal with people who change their minds frequently, just can't make up their minds or have lots of ideas but don't get much done? You can understand what's going on by thinking of the behaviour as being on a scale.

At one end of the scale you have the 'procedural' people. These individuals get things done. They like to have clear guidelines and procedures. Some of them even like filling in forms! At the other are the people who have lots of ideas and can always think of different ways of doing things. But they can't make decisions.

This is because decision-making is a procedure, and while these people are skilled at generating options and ideas, they have trouble identifying the criteria for deciding which option to take.

What's important to you about ...?

As it turns out, these 'options' people can identify what the criteria are: but only if you ask the right question. And that question is, 'What's important to you about...?'

Let's imagine you have a colleague called Trevor who has this problem and you need to get him to decide on a way of carrying out a particular project. Once you have asked Trevor this question, make sure you write down exactly what he said so you can refer to it later if he changes his mind. His answer will probably be something like: 'It's important that it's completed by the month-end, is within budget, and fits in with our current plans.'

You can then help him to identify which option meets those criteria (he won't have had any trouble identifying options). Once you have done this, keep your note of his criteria for later when he changes his mind. You then remind him, 'Trevor, you said that what was important about this project was that it's completed by the month-end, that it's within budget and it fits in with our current plans.'

He will very probably agree to go back to the original plan once you have said this. Just keep your face straight when he does.

2. Very annoying people who fuss about the detail

On the other hand do you come across people who never really answer the question you thought you asked them, go on and on for hours, rarely have ideas, have trouble working out what to do when things change, like to work in a step-by-step way or can't see the 'big picture'?

If so you may be dealing with someone who is very detail-oriented. These people can be very good at handling the detail in their own job, but poor at relating what they do to what others do.

Be extremely specific

If you have to deal with one of these people the best thing to do is to be extremely specific when you ask them questions. Instead of 'How's it going?' ask:

  • 'what stage have you reached in the XYZ plan?';
  • 'how many of the ABC units have been sold?'; or
  • 'what do you have on your task list for today?'

Asking them questions they perceive as vague makes it very hard for them to answer you accurately so they give you far more information than you need or want. If you then respond with an even vaguer answer or ask them to just give you a summary, this often makes matters worse.

If you want a summary it really helps if you give them exact details of what you want in the summary, eg: 'Please let me have sales for this month, to the nearest 100, of our five top-selling products.' I know it seems like a little more effort on your part, but you will save hours because you won't have to listen to endless detail.

3. Bullying

Bullying is someone putting their needs ahead of everyone else's. Usually it happens because the person doing it is completely unaware of everyone else's needs: they aren't just ignoring them, they don't know they exist. Bullying is very childish behaviour, and the first form of negotiation that we learn as babies. Babies cry and bawl when they are unhappy because it's the only way they know to get what they want.

When adults do it we call it bullying, because we expect them to use more advanced forms of negotiation. Here is a checklist of some of the typical behaviours - each one is enough to qualify as bullying, but often a person will be using several:


  • a strong focus on their own needs - they do not focus on the needs of others, or the effect of their own actions on them;
  • telling others what to do - in many situations they will jump to conclusions without gathering facts, and tell others what to do rather than ask;
  • blaming others for problems and events - they tend not to take responsibility for their own actions;
  • giving their opinions as facts - they use statements like 'this is useless/rubbish', instead of analysing the situation and facts;
  • insulting people publicly - they will say 'you are an idiot', in front of others; and
  • sarcasm - they make public and/or private comments to people, such as 'Well, that's really clever', when they mean the reverse.

If you encounter someone displaying these behaviours, View What to do about bullying behaviour and follow the guidelines

If you are the bully's target

Finally, if you are working with someone who uses bullying behaviour towards you, you also need to think about your own behaviour. Make sure that for your next meeting with them, the time and date are at your convenience, you are prepared, you remain standing (to give you more authority), you ask the questions, you avoid the word 'Why?' (this can be interpreted as a threat), and you breathe deeply to keep calm.


Remember, there are really no such beasts as 'difficult people'. There are just people who respond in ways we don't like, or don't know how to deal with, or that simply confound our expectations. (Even I'm still taken by surprise sometimes!) The key is to think about what you could do differently, that would get you a different response from the person you are dealing with. The golden rule is, the more difficult they are, the more you need to put yourself in their place and do your best to understand them.

For more information, see the ICAEW's Women in Finance page www.icaew.com/wif and FM135 The seven failings of really useless leaders 


Nancy Slessenger is the author of Difficult People Made Easy*. Through her company, Vinehouse, she runs workshops and provides coaching.

*Difficult People Made Easy, £14.99, published by Vinehouse Essential Ltd, ISBN: 1-904611-03-6.Available from the Vinehouse website www.vinehouse.co.uk or www.amazon.com

This article was published by the Finance and Management Faculty (Issue 146, July 2007).