Difficult People: Identify, Strategize, Implement

By Guest Blogger | catching your breath

May 19

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice, and motivated by pride and vanity.”
- Dale Carnegie

Dealing with Difficult People


It’s not hard to identify who rubs you the wrong way. You feel it in your heart as your beats per minute increase when they’re around. You feel it in your neck as it tenses up and starts to ache. You feel it in your face as it gets hotter and hotter. Maybe you physically start to shake or sweat or look for the nearest exit.

I get hot all over, starting in the back of my neck (my head and hair are drenched with sweat) and my heart starts beating faster - flight, flight, or freeze.

It’s not hard to identify difficult people in your life - that’s not what I’m talking about when I say ‘Identify’.

What I mean by ‘Identify’ is to identify why this person has such an effect on you.

My person is at one of my jobs. She’s a higher-up at the office, but (this may be real frank) I don’t like her. I spent week after week getting hot as Hell around her, looking for any excuse to get away from her, heart pounding, mind racing. There was something about this lady that I could not stomach, and it was really impacting my attitude toward work. I had to identify why this person had such an impact on me. I’d pondered and fumed and complained and vented and even cried about this lady!

When I was in college, my best friend at the time realized I was struggling emotionally, and she didn’t know how to help me. She kept telling me, “I don’t know what’s going on in your head and neither do you. You’ve got to identify it.” She made me sit in this hard ass chair in the middle of her dorm room and complete this sentence: “I am (fill in the blank with an emotion) because (finish the sentence).” It took me 3 hours to finish the sentence that night. Over the years, I’ve gotten better with practice at identifying what specifically I am angry, sad, happy, worried about.

So I employed this trusty method for figuring out my issue with this lady.

People can be difficult, lots of people are. The difference in your day comes down to how you handle the difficult person. You’re probably not going to change them. You can’t. You’re beautifully human.

Who you can work on is you.

​You can't change other people. Who you can work on  is YOU. via @iamsteveaustin #catchingyourbreath

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I was able to start finishing the sentence, stating what specific actions or events with this lady upset me. I was able to identify that I did not like her condescending tone and accusations, her use of touch (I don’t like being guided by the elbow like I’m a visually-impaired child), and her seemingly nonsensical directives. Once I identified these, I could see them coming a little quicker and attempt to prepare myself (which for me means keeping my face straight, making sure my eyes aren’t rolling, and watching my tone/volume).

I was in my counseling session one day, complaining about this lady to my therapist, telling her what the latest annoying happening was. I’d moved on in my session, talking about other things not remotely related to this lady or work - I’d starting processing something about my mom.

Brief history: mom (always single) = super independent, mostly blind, USAF veteran, survivor of severe sexual abuse from childhood through adulthood at the hands of those closest to her, living with severe  psychosis, LOTS of psychiatric medications, pervasive eating disorders (yes, plural), abusive toward me, died of cancer when I was 13 after fighting a horrible fight for 3 years.

I was processing some old stories that I’d endured from the ages of 11-13, when things were worst in my house. I was half-laughing about how unpredictable she was. She once accused me of turning up the heat on the water heater, making all the faucets and showers in the house too hot. What!? She was in one of her rages and demanded I prove to her I did it by showing her the water heater. So I took a guess and headed toward the kitchen. I’d never in my life noticed the water heater out in the garage (and definitely didn’t fiddle with the heat level). All that to say, I was half-laughing about how off-the-wall unpredictable she was.

Then, in one (entire dramatic adjective) minute, my therapist said, “That’s what you don’t like about that lady at work. You never know what she’s going to throw at you. You’re always on high alert when you’re around her, much like how you had to be constantly on high alert at home when your mom was alive. You haven’t had to live like that for years, and feeling like this now as an adult is very unsettling.”

Side note - counseling freaking works! I’d pondered and pondered this over several weeks, trying to identify what specifically was so difficult about my interactions with this lady! I’ve worked with people I don’t especially care for, but this lady was something else entirely. It was through counseling I was able to identify something that ran really really deep, something I’d lived through from age about 8-13/almost 14, that was an old way of survival that had shaped my adulthood and worldview.

​Counseling freaking works! via @iamsteveaustin #counseling #therapy #catchingyourbreath

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As soon as I identified the similarities in my reactions and feelings toward my colleague that were stirred up by memories of my past life with my abusive mother, I was able to start strategizing - thinking of ways to protect myself, assert my professionalism and expertise (you hired me for a reason, because I’m skilled at what I do!), and start managing my relationship with this colleague rather than turn tail and run away from her.

I already knew exactly how to survive my mother. I started to think of ways I could protect myself without (hopefully) showing any weakness.

These strategies are different for every person you’re going to deal with. Sometimes, you need only think of ways to protect yourself - move offices, change your phone number, take a different route to work, eat at a different McD’s (I don’t know!). You are 100% worth protecting. As fiercely as you’d protect your best friend, spouse, pet (shout out to cat-mommas!) yours or other children - you deserve every bit of protection.

I needed to make up in my mind to stop taking any of what this colleague said to me personally. I don’t want to have a personal relationship with her, so why am I allowing myself to be affected as if we were personally connected?

I wasn’t able to only strategize for my protection - I also had to strategize how to manage the relationship while continuing to communicate professionally.

Strategies for my protection:

  • when you see her coming, STOP and take 3 huge deep breaths
  • relax your face and unclench your shoulders
  • set your mind to “don’t take this personally” mode - professional discussion only
  • appeal to her need for dominance and power (maybe use some pleases and thank yous - stroke that ego - BUT NOT AT YOUR EXPENSE! you’re professional and competent - DO NOT SELL YOURSELF SHORT!)

These were very specific strategies that work for this specific colleague and her brand of difficult. You’re strategies need to be different for each difficult person you plan to tackle.

​You are 100% worth protecting. via @iamsteveaustin #catchingyourbreath 

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Before you know it, you’ll have a chance to implement your strategies for dealing with this difficult person. With any skill - practice, practice, practice! Take it easy on yourself. ​You deserve every bit of grace and patience! 

When I was 11, in a spurt of reckless abandon on my part, I made the choice to tell my mom I wanted to learn how to play the violin. I was in school at the premiere performing arts middle school in Montgomery, and I’d seen the orchestra perform. I was in awe. I’d been playing the piano since I was 6 years old (not by my choice - my mom forced that issue, but I was really good, so...there’s that), so I thought I’d be a pretty quick study. To my sheer amazement, she signed the permission form and gave me the fee money!

The next year, I joined the orchestra. Since I knew how to read music, I was put into the advanced class before I’d ever touched a violin. This meant I had to practice, practice, practice. I knew the method and theory, but I’d never actually implemented any of that on a violin. But it was something I really wanted to do.

The violin soothed my soul and was like magic for my ears and brain. I would tough out the piano practicing just to get to the hour I had to practice the violin every night. I could make that thing sing. Practicing was a challenge: make that part of the music piece stronger, be more precise with the tone, make the music flow smoother, let go and just feel it. It challenged me. It fulfilled my need to conquer something even when I couldn't get it exactly right. I had all the power to keep practicing and make that piece of music perfect. Perfection happened when I could close my eyes and almost be in a different world, just me and my violin, the only sound I could hear was the music I was creating.  

I gave myself that boost of confidence I was getting literally nowhere else. I began to see how practicing this new skill paid off when I would do my performance tests in class, when I earned first chair in the final performance of the school year, and when I auditioned for and got into the performing arts high school with my violin audition.

It took literally YEARS to practice the technique my old college buddy taught me. Now, I can process something pretty quickly - much quicker than when I was in my early twenties anyway! Your strategies will take continued practice and maybe even some tweaks. That’s 100% normal and manageable. It’s okay if there are still tears and hyperventilating in the break room. Regroup. Protect yourself. Get out of there for today and try again a different day.

I was able to implement my strategies.

Remember the grumpy, overbearing colleague?

What worked best for me was appealing to her need for dominance and perceived respect. I shifted my language ever so slightly - not placing myself in a subservient role, but realizing that my comfort and ability to function professionally was more important to me than a couple extra pleases or re-worded phrases.

I started saying things like, “Do you have a second for me to ask you a question. I’m almost certain you’ll know the answer. Could I run this by you please?” (I know this sounds like I’m telling you to give in and give them the power, but by doing this, I took back MY power and was able to remain professional and coherent while speaking with this colleague.)

I definitely take the deep breaths when I see her coming, but I’ve been able to practice this so much it’s an almost automatic response now. It’s like my bat-signal saying, “Hey gal (because that’s what I call myself when I’m talking to myself - no one else does that…?). It’s okay. She’s coming. You is smart. You is intelligent. You is valuable.

Over the course of the next several days, we’re going to identify the various types of difficult people, plus discuss ways to deal with each one of them.

The good news? You don’t have to do this alone. Meet us in the ​Catching Your Breath Community, and we can work through it together.

I believe in you,

​Ashley C. Davis


*Follow me on Facebook

Looking for more?

Listen to Episode 19 of Catching Your Breath: The Podcast, featuring highlights from a group coaching session on dealing with difficult people!

Episode 19: Dealing with Difficult People

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