When a Muzzle Isnít an Option

A muzzle isn’t an option. Therefore, it’s critical that professionals know how to handle difficult people they encounter in the workplace … especially when it’s the boss or others in management!

Chances are there’s always going to be at least one person that you’ll come across in your career (or, even every day!) who drives you mad … you may want to slap his or her face or scream until your voice is gone. Obviously, none of these are healthy approaches.

Understanding how to relate to people you find difficult is especially critical since, on average, we spend more waking hours with our coworkers and clients than we do with our families and friends.

What can be done if you hate your boss, or have someone else in a position of authority who seems like he or she is out to get you, or work with someone who just plain drives you crazy (for whatever reason)?

The first thing about dealing with difficult people is realizing that they probably think the same thing about you – that YOU are the difficult one! Second, understand that people are usually different more than they are difficult. So, it’s more about how to deal with different personality types and character quirks than addressing openly hostile and angry individuals who hold a personal grudge against you.

Option One: Do Nothing

In their book Dealing With People You Can't Stand, Rick Brinkman and Rick Kirschner say professionals have four options when it comes to coping with complicated people:

1. Do nothing.

2. Walk away.

3. Change your attitude.

4. Change your behavior.

The first option, doing nothing, usually happens when a superior is the difficult party. This course of inaction is usually the one taken because of fear of retaliation: “I’ll get fired, demoted or treated even worse if I complain.”

Taking the high road – not letting negative comments or behaviors affect your demeanor can work … if you can just “let it go.” So, the next time you read a memo from your boss that seems to deliberately provoke a negative reaction, throw it away. Ignore the message. If you don’t react in any way, often the sender will stop the behavior because he or she knows nothing will phase you and no satisfaction is received. Of course, by doing nothing, it can also cause you frustration.

Option Two: Walk Away

A comparable option for managing an actual encounter with a difficult person would be to walk away. If you encounter a hostile supervisor or manager in the hallway ranting about the next staff meeting, for example, turn around and walk the other way.

When you take this stance, it means you don’t deliberately engage someone who obviously has an ax to grind or is venting loudly (and very publicly) about a problem.

Option Three: Change Your Attitude

If you can’t take the high ground by ignoring or escaping the situation, consider changing your attitude.

We constantly encounter situations and people on the job who may affect our ability to achieve objectives. If we take the time to attempt to understand other peoples’ opinions and stance on issues, we can gain greater insight into what makes them “tick” and why they appear to be difficult to work with. This insight will help us change our own views --

improving our ability to work with people.

If you analyze the undesirable behavior to learn the goal behind it, you can adapt your communication to acknowledge the person’s motivations.

Option Four: Change Your Behavior

Job performance can be improved when you understand how to adapt your behavioral style to suit others.

Learning how to communicate effectively with all types of people is critical in dealing with difficult situations.

To avoid being perceived as difficult, it can also help if you tell others what your intent is. You'll become a more effective communicator. Information you believe is obvious may not be as clear to those around you.

Perhaps your demeanor may need polish. Remember, common courtesies count! So, first and foremost, be polite. Proper etiquette skills are critical in helping to create a mutually respectful office environment – even when there are people who don’t see eye to eye on issues.

Learn how to control your nonverbal messages more effectively, so that the signals you (subconsciously or intentionally) put out are not misinterpreted by others. Nonverbal messages include body language such as gesturing, facial expressions like frowning or grimacing, eye contact and posture. Business wardrobe selection and appearance also contribute to nonverbal cues – if you arrive to work in a corporate setting on your first day dressed inappropriately for your office environment, you may immediately be branded as a rebel.

Taking Proactive Measures

If you decide to challenge someone who you feel is difficult, by all means, do so, but politely. Muriel Solomon, author of “What Do I Say When ...”A Guidebook for Getting Your Way With People on the Job, suggests phrasing your grievances in terms of how they affect your job performance. She says a good approach would be to say something like, “Boss, I know how hard you're trying to increase production, but when you bark orders at me, I don't function as well. I wonder if we could work out a different system.”

When it’s a colleague who is a problem, try to address it right away. Don’t let your frustration build to where you suddenly lose your temper over a trivial issue and your coworker is confused and hurt.

Straightforward, frank communication is the most desirable approach: “June, I can hear your radio in my office, and I can’t concentrate. Would you please turn the volume down? Thanks!”

How to Handle Difficult People

So what do you do when you need to handle a difficult person – your boss or someone else? Here are four more suggestions:

1.Give the person feedback about how you feel, and what behavior you would like to have changed.

2.If they refuse to change, you can fire them or transfer them (if appropriate).

3.You can learn to live with it.

4.Or, you can quit.

Getting along with others may at times be phenomenally challenging. The extra effort it takes to adapt to and understand people can reap significant rewards such as increased opportunities, enhancing your leadership image and improving your work environment – not to mention actually keeping your job or customer!


She’s been described as: sassy, wise, irreverent, remarkably insightful and classy. Hall of Fame speaker and executive coach Marjorie Brody has educated and inspired thousands of audiences to step up and demonstrate their real worth in organizations across the country and around the world. With enough degrees, honors, awards and certifications to make the most accomplished among us envious, Marjorie Brody, MA, CSP, PCC, CPAE, has become the go-to “sage” for organizations and leaders looki...

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