Are you helping difficult people to be difficult?


Google "working with difficult people", and you'll get about 16,800 hits; "difficult people at work" 10,700; and just "difficult people", a whopping 1,730,000 hits!

No relationship is exclusively one-way. When any two people interact, the influences flow in both directions.

So if there's someone at work (at home or at play) who consistently irritates you, peeves you, and just generally gets under your skin, know this: you are almost certainly part of your problem.

There's no question that in most every organizations (or home or playground), we come face-to-face with folks who push our buttons, antagonize, frustrate, or otherwise annoy us, and behave in ways that make us want to scream.

These are commonly referred to as "difficult people. Some we label simply irritating; some we label rude and others we label as impossible to work or be with.

In my experience, however, the question is not so much what makes them difficult, but what we tell ourselves about them that makes them difficult. Because underlying and triggering our reactions are the stories we tell ourselves about such folks that categorizes them in our minds as being difficult.

When we drill down to the truth of the difficulty matter, experience suggests that it's not so much that another's behavior really is all that egregious, but that we have created a story about that person which we assume is true.

So the next time you feel the urge to label another as being difficult, a first step is to check out the facts. But how? Try asking yourself these three questions.

1. What is that person doing that is problematical for me?
First, ask yourself exactly what the what the behaviors are point to "difficulty". Often, when caught up in reactivity, or flooded by emotions, we lose sight of observable facts and simply respond with a knee-jerk judgment along the lines of, "well, it's nothing specific; he's just being an "a–hole".

Because we are so attached to our story, we often fail to grasp the details that indicate the person is, in fact, difficult. So, ask yourself, "If someone gave me the same feedback I am directing to another person, would I know exactly how to do, or be, differently?"

If not, you're telling yourself a story and you'll need to be clear on the facts.

2. Do you allow your story to cloud your view of that person?
When we create stories, we create a way we choose to view that person. For example, if I choose to believe that someone is lazy, then I turn the radio dial in my head to the station that features only "laziness" tunes. Which means I'm always on the lookout for behaviors which I think prove that person is Lazy.


  • How do you generally react at work (at home and at play) when you come across a "difficult" person?
  • Do you ever give a "difficult" person the benefit of the doubt? If not, why not?
  • If you ever labeled someone as "difficult", what did labeling them as "difficult" get you?
  • Do you ever make judgments about folks assuming you know all about them (chapters one and two) and what makes them "tick"?
  • Have you ever been the "difficult" person? If so, how does acknowledging this make you feel?
  • Have you ever asked colleagues, bosses, friends, spouse/partner or child(ren) if you're a difficult person? If not, would you? If not, why not?
  • Have you even been judged harshly or unfairly? How did you feel?
  • Have you ever been told you were quick to judge?
  • Do you ever make up stories about people? How do your stories make you feel?
  • Do you ever feel compassionate towards "difficult" people?
  • Do you ever defend "difficult" people?
  • Do you ever justify your own being "difficult" while admonishing others for their being "difficult?" What's the difference?
  • When the choice is between seeing another as a human being or a villain ("difficult"), which do you normally choose? Why?
  • What one or two baby steps might you take this week and next to discern the facts about someone you might have labeled as "difficult" to see if your "story" is, really, really, the "truth?"

If I choose to believe my boss is friendlier with a colleague and is ignoring me and my work, then I turn the radio dial to pick up "rejection" tunes and look for incidents which allow me to say, "see, there she goes again; she likes that other person and is not concerned with me or my work."

In other words, we create distortions to prove that we are right and that our story is true. We look to archive lots of evidence to prove our story. We don't stand back and ask ourselves important questions, like:

"Is this the whole story?"
"Is my story, really, really the truth?"
"Is it possible I am distorting things just a bit?"
"Is this person perhaps, just perhaps, not the ogre I make him or her out to be?"
"Could I be mistaken?"

3. Do you behave a certain way toward that person based on your story?
The bottom line is that our stories influence our behavior, be it at work, at home or at play. Our stories - and their assumptions - trigger our emotions and feelings and it is our emotions and feelings that drive our behavior (often unconsciously) towards the other.

So, it's important to take steps to become conscious of our stories. Two questions that can help in this vein are:

"How do I behave toward another based on my story?" and,
"Am I building a case against another, or attempting to solidify a case against another, based on my story?

A next step is to become curious as to whether, in fact, you are perpetuating another's behavior as a result of your story. Are you contributing to that other person's being "difficult" through your story and your reaction to it?

I'm not denying that there are "difficult" people in the world. The question is whether some of these folks are really difficult in and of themselves or whether YOU are a major factor in them being difficult.

Finally, I invite you to reflect on the following thoughts that might inform your inquiry into difficult people and your stories about them.

Everyone is in chapter three of their life and often we base our criticisms and judgments of another on the assumption we know what went on in chapter one and chapter two. The truth is, we don't know.

Ask yourself: "Why would a rational, decent, fair-minded and well-meaning individual behave like a jerk" (Or fill in the blank with another "difficult" descriptor you use.) And then perhaps compassionately give them the benefit of the doubt before you make up your story or justify your story as "the truth".

Because no one (read: NO ONE) ever gets up in the morning and says, "I'm going to be a jerk today."

more articles

About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.

Older Comments

Great Article - again, Peter gets to the heart of an important matter and gives great insight on how I participate in someone else's difficult behavior, yet I don't end up feeling bad about myself. I know I am part of the problem with difficult people - I allow them to get to me. But now I can try to look at the full situation and look at how I'm acting and have more compassion. THANKS - always a pleasure to read your articles, Peter. Cheers!

kristin rohan