They’re all around you. Creeping over your shoulder at work, intercepting you at the family Christmas dinner, or railing on you because you parked in the wrong spot. These are examples of difficult people that invade your life. They are amply present in your work environment and probably within your family. Sometimes they make a special guest appearance as an annoying neighbor or rude customer service rep.
Characteristics of Difficult People
Dealing with difficult people is, unfortunately, a fact of life. They aren’t easy to escape but there are strategies on how to deal with them to make you a bit less crazy. Difficult people are generally not one note. There is variety and range to the collection. They don’t all fall into the category of mean, argumentative, or passive aggressive. They can equally be draining of your energies when overly passive and accommodating.
A central characteristic of difficult people is that they are energy vampires. They suck the life right out of you. When you anticipate being with them, you’re filled with dread. When you’re interacting with them, you’re frustrated. And when you're done with them, you feel exhausted and mystified.
Following are seven types of difficult people that you will cross paths with at some point in your life, if not several times this week. It’s important to identify them, look under the hood a little, and devise some strategies on how to deal with them without the collateral damage of turning you into a difficult person too.
1 - The Bully
This is a classic example and what many probably think of as a difficult person. They tend to be very assertive and unyielding in their positions. They’re demanding in what they want and feel justified in controlling all the terms. Fairness and compromise aren’t in their vocabulary and they have an expectation that the other party should accommodate them. With them, you really can’t win and when you’re finished dealing with them you feel small, weak, and defeated.
Honestly, the most helpful tactic to deal with these kinds of people is just to steer clear of them. You, like everyone else, will probably be mowed down by their domineering demeanor so it’s easier to not be in their line of sight. If they come at you, try to deflect or distract. Because they’re so aggressive these people are always on the hunt for something/someone to conquer. If you point out an alternative target that seems more pressing, they may move on.
But if this person is your boss or mother-in-law and they can’t be so easily avoided, another tactic is to be aloof. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy. Counter their intensity with disregard or a muted response. By being placid in your interactions, you actually hold some power by effectively neutralizing their intensity. It’s like trying to punch a hologram. No resistance exists to give the bully a point of impact.
Your Mind Game to Manage: Oh! Look over there because I just don’t care.
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2 - The Egomaniac
A close cousin of the bully is the egomaniac. These people border on the ridiculous in how highly they think of themselves. Not only is their perceived self-worth astronomical, but they also seem to think they know everything. I ran into many of these types in the corporate world. Most were men, but not all. They usually resided in the executive offices.
In my experiences coming face-to-face with such people, I was amused by their conviction in their own self-worth. Sometimes it felt like a satirical SNL skit. But the really funny thing about these people is that they are so malleable. They’re presenting to you what their biggest vulnerability is — their ego. So play to it to get what you want. For these people, flattery will get you everywhere.
You do this by leaning in to help them pat themselves on the back. Give the impression of sincerely if only to not expose your ulterior motives. Resist rolling your eyes. Instead, compliment them, seek their advice, and subtly mimic their style. This all plays well to this type. You may feel disingenuous, and that’s because you are. You’re trying to compartmentalize their ego so you don’t feel exasperated by their nonstop me-show. In time, they will probably come to genuinely like you and trust you because you give them an audience they crave.
Your Mind Game to Manage: Yes, you are THAT awesome!
3 - The Needy One
All of us have needs. Some have a lot more than others. Enter the overly needy person. This may be the new acquaintance who believes you two are becoming best friends without much evidence nor time spent. Or the sister who can’t go out socially unless you’re her wing woman. These people have a hard time standing on their own two feet emotionally or socially and seek out people to be their crutch.
I remember going on a whale watching kayaking trip in Vancouver Island, Canada many years ago. I was living in Chicago at the time and coincidently, while on the trip, I met another single gal from Chicago. We didn’t interact that much while on the trip but because were from the same city, we agreed to exchange numbers and meet up when we got back.
After the trip, she was all over me. She suggested that we hang out. At first, I was open to it but quickly realized that we had nothing in common and I found her company boring and rather draining. Despite what I thought was a non-starter in forming a friendship, she continued to pursue me. She repeatedly called and suggested we hang out. Finally, I had to tell her straight up, “I don’t think this is a compatible match.”
I felt bad but I wasn’t willing to fake my way through these interactions. I reasoned it wasn’t good for her either as she deserved to be in the company of someone who really enjoyed hers. I wished her well but felt a relief when our paths finally parted.
Your Mind Game to Manage: It’s tough love kid but you’re on your own.
4 - The Pessimist
Feeling blue every once in a while is the natural order of things. We can’t be happy or even content all of the time. Life’s too complicated. But from time to time we interact with people who just can’t see the glass half-full no matter what. In fact, their glass isn’t just half empty, it’s smashed to pieces on the floor.
Cynical people like this seem to perpetually walk around with dark clouds over them. Little do they realize that their disposition becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do you ever find that they always seem to be a victim of bad luck?
These people tend to be the most frustrating to deal with because every halfway optimistic point you make is countered. Coupled with this doom and gloom is often deep-seated insecurity about themselves. Especially in seeing their own power to turn their frown upside down.
I have a family member who just can’t see the bright side of anything. Often she laments the frustrations of her life that seems to never change as the years go by. My attempts to have constructive conversations with her about how to effect change always ends in defeat. My defeat.
She insists that my suggestions or, for that matter, any suggestion just won’t work. From her vantage point, her situation is just different or too complicated so she insists she must soldier on erroneously believing things can never change.
As they say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So with this family member, I stopped trying. It became a futile exercise to be encouraging and offer actionable suggestions to have her never take action. I realized at some point I couldn’t encourage her out of her troubles, she’d have to be entirely responsible for that. So, instead, now I listen for just a little bit and then try to change the subject to something more neutral.
Your Mind Game to Manage: Decline the invite for the pity party.
5 - The Complainer
Just shut up already! These people can grate on your nerves and make the Buddha lose his cool. Inevitably sometime, somewhere we all run into the complainer. Everything is wrong or bad and it’s always someone else’s fault. This person typically has zero introspection and finds all their troubles are squarely outside their realm of influence.
Like the bully, this is also a type I recommend steering clear of. They bring you down as they’re always seeking out an audience to commiserate with. They know better than anyone that misery loves company. Any attempts at countering their argument or defending the poor victim of their rant will usually be met with a harsh incredulous reaction. They will likely look at your counter response as a betrayal which, of course, will give them something new to complain about.
If you need to deal with this person regularly, go the aloof route. By remaining passive and not offering a platform of confirmation, they will soon realize you’re not a receptive agent for their tirades. They may just look elsewhere. My husband has a great deadpan response to people like this: “Oh, interesting.” He offers no agreement nor engagement and his apathy it’s quite evident.
Your Mind Game to Manage: Don’t feed the beast.
6 - The Pleaser
Most of us would like to think that we’re pretty easy-going about most things. We accommodate most requests when they seem reasonable or we wish to be cooperative. However, there may be times when a demand is too great for whatever reason. While it may feel uncomfortable at the moment, we know we’re doing the right thing by saying no.
For the perpetual people pleaser, this just never happens. They will crawl over hot coals smiling all the way before speaking up on their behalf and setting up acceptable boundaries. While this struggle in all their own, to be around such a person is very disheartening.
It’s frustrating to witness because you’re watching the lopsided abuse that they are bringing upon themselves. You resent the perpetrator who is taking advantage and you feel helpless in some ways to stop it. Likewise, you wish to shake some sense into the pleaser insisting that such acquiescence won’t pay long-term dividends.
So much is outside your control when dealing with such people. But at the very least you can (and should) be ethical in how you deal with them. Insist they not behave to over accommodate you. Introduce them to words like No, Not now, and Maybe someone else.
Paint the picture for them that always pleasing others won’t yield the ultimate acceptance they’re hungry for. Encourage them to practice the right we all have to be a little bit selfish sometimes. Ironically that’s how they’ll probably get the respect and appreciation they’re longing for.
Your Mind Game to Manage: Find your spine and stop being such a doormat.
7 - The Dull One
This last person isn’t so much difficult as unfortunate. Sometimes I come across people who offer up nothing — nothing — to share. Despite my friendly inquiries they claim to have no real interests, hobbies, interesting work responsibilities, humorous or adventurous stories, or insight about world events. I wonder what rock they live under.
This may sound harsh but please give me something! I really try to decipher shyness and uber privacy from one-dimensional existence. If they are truly uninspired to discover anything, I feel more sadness than frustration with them. There are so many things of this world to be fascinated by — places to see, people to meet, things to learn.
I, for one, love experiences. I see my limited time on this earth as a race to cram in as much experience as I can. Not pursuing anything is like going on vacation and sitting in your hotel room. What a shame.
I really don’t know the remedy for such disinterest. I reason it’s their life and I can’t be inquisitive for them. I guess I try to dig a little deeper and see if anything sparks. If absolutely nothing lights them up, I move on.
Your Mind Game to Manage: Being interesting starts with having an interest.
Extending Empathy to Difficult People
As part of your own human experience, all or some of these people will cross your path. Some quite regularly. As the frustrations of these people mount you need to preserve your sanity. To not let their baggage become your oppressive overcoat. It may be helpful to take a step back and look upon these people from an objective frame of mind and let a little empathy sink in.
Think about it. They got this way somehow. You won't know the back story but if you believe everyone is born a clean slate, you can objectively recognize circumstances outside their control likely molded them to who they are. Probably somewhere along the line they got a bad deal like poor parenting, unbearable circumstances, or traumatic experiences.
Managing Reactions When Dealing with Difficult People
For a brief moment, calling up empathy may work but it is far more difficult when you’re directly in contact with them. When communicating with difficult people, it’s all in your face and managing your own emotions seems nearly impossible. Stay calm and emotionally neutral. Take deep breaths.
If you can mindfully tap into empathy as a step one, then step two seems a bit easier. Try to mentally compartmentalize them in a place away from you. It’s a way to mentally create a protective boundary around yourself and a dividing boundary between you and them.
People are hard to change especially if they’re not aware of how they come across. Introspection probably isn't their thing and the work to course correct is too demanding if they would consider it anyway. Recognize that it’s not your job to fix these people. Instead, if you can, eliminate the most frustrating and offensive from your life.
I am going to say this — it's okay to walk away. Sometimes people's influence in your life just isn't worth the trouble, frustration, or exhaustion. Protect yourself and be judicious in who you let into your inner circle. Don't be held back by guilt, obligation, or pity. You may just be offering them an audience when what they really need is a shock to the system. But again that probably isn't your responsibility either.
Self-Evaluation: Are You a Difficult Person?
As one last point, I want to say this as delicately as I can...could you be one of these difficult people? Ouch. This takes some brave and deep self-introspection. If you’re guilty, you may have gotten the slightest inklings about this perhaps during a performance review or an exasperated fight with your spouse/partner. Or stop and reflect if new acquaintances continue to ghost you.
To be fair, we all embody these character flaws from time to time (me included) with certain people and/or under specific circumstances. If you can look in the mirror and be honest, you can answer the question: Is being a difficult person who I am or what I sometimes happen to be?
As difficult people are inescapable, we can learn to manage our interactions with them diplomatically and for the greater good of everyone. Play along, give some grace and empathy, try to improve where you can, and know where the healthy boundaries lay.
Take inventory of the difficult people in your life. What category would they be in? What strategies could you use to lessen their effect on your life up to and including cutting ties?
Likewise, examine which of these characteristics you have a propensity to exhibit in times of stress. Can you recognize when these tendencies appear? How can you mitigate them?
Journal about this and confide in a trusted friend or professional to discuss.
What are some tactics you use to endure your encounter with difficult people? Share some advice with the rest of us in the comments below!