How to Deal With Difficult (Even Impossible) People

06/02/2010 03:49 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

We have all met people who are so prickly and difficult that no one wants to handle them. In most situations walking away is an option, and you escape with no more than ruffled feathers. But some situations are inescapable. You can wait until the thorny personality is gone and moan "He's just impossible" to a friend. Far better, though, to begin to develop skills in practical psychology.

First, take responsibility for your part of the interaction. Animosity is created in your own heart. Even the most impossible person had a mother. She was loved by somebody. If you can deal with your own reaction and take responsibility for it, no step is more productive. Detachment is always the best response, because if you can interact without having a reaction, you will be clear-headed enough to make progress in relating to this difficult person.

Next, try to name what specifically causes the difficulty. Is the person clinging, controlling, competitive? We all tend to use descriptive words loosely, but it helps to know exactly what is going on.

-- Clinging types want to be taken care of and loved. They feel weak and are attracted to stronger people. If desperate, they will cling to anyone.

-- Controlling types have to be right. There is always an excuse for their behavior (however brutal) and always a reason to blame others. Controlling people are perfectionists and micro-managers. Their capacity to criticize others is endless.

-- Competitive types have to win. They see all encounters, no matter how trivial, as a contest. Until they win, they won't let go.

Having identified the type you are dealing with, don't do what doesn't work:

-- Clinging types cannot be handled with avoidance. They are like Velcro and will stick to you every time you get close. They ignore a polite no, but you can't use direct rejection without making an enemy. Neutrality hurts their feelings and makes them feel insecure.

-- Controlling types won't back down if you show them concrete evidence that you are right and they are wrong. They don't care about facts, only about being right. If they are perfectionists, you can't handle them simply by doing a better job. There's always going to be something to criticize.

-- Competitive types can't be pacified by pleading. Any sign of emotion is like a red flag to a bull. They take your tears as a sign of weakness and charge even harder. They want to go in for the kill, even when you beg them not to. If you stand your ground and try to win, they will most likely jump ship and abandon you.

Since these behaviors don't work, what does?

-- Clinging types can be handled by showing them how to deal with situations on their own. Give them responsibility. Instead of doing what they want, show them how to do it. This works with children, and clinging types are children who have never grown up (which is why they often seem so infantile). If they try the gambit of saying that you do the job so much better, reply that you don't. The stronger and more capable you act, the more they will cling. Finally, find situations where you can honestly say, "I need your help." Either they will come through or walk away. You will probably be happy either way.

-- Controlling types can be handled by acting unintimidated. At heart, controlling types fear that they are inadequate, and they defend against their own insecurity by making other people feel insecure and not good enough. Show that you are good enough. When you do a good job, say so and don't fall for their insistence on constant changes. Be strong and stand up for yourself. Above all, don't turn an encounter into a contest of who's right and who's wrong -- you'll never outplay a controlling type at their own game.

-- Competitive types are handled by letting them win. Until they win, they won't have a chance to show generosity. Most competitive types want to be generous; it improves their self-image, and competitive types never lose sight of their self-image. If you have a strong disagreement, never show emotion or ask for mercy. Instead, make a reasonable argument. If the discussion is based on facts, competitive types have a way to back down without losing. (For example, instead of saying "I'm too tired to do this. It's late, and you're being unfair," say "I need more research time on this, and I will get it to you faster if I am fresh in the morning.")

There are times when you cannot handle difficult people and must distance yourself. But even this isn't black and white.

-- Self-important people: Let them have their say. You can't shut them up. Mostly you can ignore their contribution, however. They tend to forget what they said very quickly. If they domineer to the point of suffocating you, stay away. The best strategy, the one used by those who actually love such types and marry them -- is to sit back and enjoy the show.

-- Chronic complainers: These people are bitter and angry but haven't dealt with the reality that the source of their anger is internal. Your only option is generally to put up with them and stay away when you can. Don't agree with their complaints or try to placate them. They have endless fuel for their bitterness and simmering rage.

-- Victims: These people are passive aggressive. They get away with doing wrong to you by hurting themselves into the bargain. If they arrive half an hour late at a restaurant, for example, they had something bad happen to hold them up. The fact that you are the target of the inconvenience is never acknowledged. The best tactic is to get as angry as you normally would, if called for. Don't take their victimization as an excuse. If the victim is a "poor me" type without the passive aggression side, offer realistic, practical help rather than sympathy. (For example, if they announce that they might lose their job, say "I can loan you money and give you some job leads," instead of "That's awful. You must feel terrible.")

In the short run, most of the everyday difficult types want somebody to listen and not judge. If you can do that without getting involved, lending your ear for a while is also the decent thing to do. Being a good listener means not arguing, criticizing, offering your own opinion, or interrupting. If the other person has a genuine interest in you -- most difficult people don't -- they will invite you to talk and not simply listen. Yet being a good listener has its limits. As soon as you feel taken advantage of, start exiting. The bottom line with practical psychology is that you know what to fix, what to put up with, and what to walk away from.
Deepak Chopra on