The Best Way To Deal with “Difficult” People: Don’t

I wrote the following piece as a Twitter thread a few weeks ago. However, at the time (and as I publish this), my Twitter feed is private, and a kind reader commented that they wished it were public so they could share this thread.

I responded that I might turn it into a blog post. And, eventually, I did.

The following is lightly edited and adapted from that Twitter thread, elaborating my points a touch more, and copyediting out abbreviations and style that Twitter’s short form often necessitates.

Years ago I got pretty good at dealing with difficult people, developing tactics to mitigate at least some of the damage they can inflict (not always ‘on purpose’) and sometimes keeping them from utterly derailing good, collective endeavors. I learned these skills both from my professional work and community work.

It got so that friends, colleagues and acquaintances would often ask me for advice for dealing with the difficult people in their own lives. However, I observed that some folks had difficulty enacting the advice, though the process of talking it out made them feel better.

(Hint: As I was learning, the cure often seemed more difficult than the disease.)

I also sort of got nominated for (or maybe didn’t step back from) dealing with the difficult people in various situations. I won’t say that I loved the task, but clearly was willing to take it on, in part because I felt like I could get some progress instead of none.

But over time dealing with difficult people wore me down. I started to wonder if it was even necessary. I watched too many “bad apples” consume enormous amounts of time and energy from groups of all kinds, distracting from the actual mission at hand.

I started to see that some groups and organizations are catnip for difficult people, while others are more resistant (or repellent). I also saw that some people are also more attractive or unattractive to difficult people.

It started to dawn on me that the apparent “victims” of difficult people are sometimes, at the least, complicit and unwitting (or unconscious) accomplices. I began to think that being able to “deal” with difficult people may also have made me an accomplice.

What became clearer is that the best way to deal with difficult people is not to deal at all. Dealing with difficult, overly aggressive, narcissistic and belligerent behavior usually only encourages more of that behavior. The negative response doesn’t seem to be the disincentive it would for most people.

Nowadays when people ask me for advice for dealing with difficult people, my first response is: don’t. The second response is: find nice people to work with.

Of course I understand that not all situations, groups, workplaces or relationships are so easily left or escaped. Even so, finding a way out is probably the better use of energy than trying to just deal with that difficult person (or people).

The advice is easier to enact when starting new relationships, joining new groups or starting a new job. Look around, ask yourself: Are these people nice? Are most of them nice? Are nearly all of them nice? Are ALL of them nice?

I vote for ALL as the best choice.

And by nice, I mean not just copacetic, but are they respectful? Do they clearly make an effort not to offend or be unnecessarily aggressive? Do they respond to conflict with open minds and hearts? Are they willing to talk things out? Do they avoid assigning blame, while also taking responsibility for the consequences of their own actions?

If you get too many “no” answers to those questions, then seriously reconsider.

Still, there are folks with jobs or families where leaving or not engaging isn’t an option. I get that. For those folks getting good at dealing with difficult people is a real asset, and a skill to sharpen. But please don’t self-nominate to deal with them elsewhere.

By and large, if you’re trying to be nice, respectful, cooperative, open minded and hearted, and others are not responding in kind, then the problem is probably not you, and it’s certainly not your fault.

It’s not on you to change the people who aren’t nice, and who won’t try to be nice. And nothing you’re going to do is going to convince a difficult person to act differently. If incentives to be nice worked, then they wouldn’t be difficult in the first place, right?

So, in short, choose to work with, relate with and hang out with nice people. If you have a choice, do not choose to deal with difficult people. If you don’t think you have a choice, try to find a way in which you do. And be nice, yourself.

Finally, a note about defining “difficult.” Mostly I’m talking about entitled white men — they certainly made up the vast majority of difficult people I’ve had to deal with. Not all, but most. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, political affiliations and abilities. But I believe that entitlement of some kind tends to be the most commonly shared trait.

I’m not talking about people who stick up for themselves against a prejudiced system.

“Difficult” means being belligerent when others try to negotiate. “Difficult” means refusing fair compromises and demanding only to get one’s way. “Difficult” means belittling others and resorting to intimidation when one doesn’t get their way. “Difficult” means targeting people with less power and privilege for one’s tactics, even, and especially, when simultaneously claiming to defend progressive values.

But, again, since I’m not talking about taking aggressive action against anyone, or forcing people out of a group, job, circle or family, your definition of “difficult” is fine for you. Since the advice is to remove yourself (not remove someone else).

Leaving and finding different groups, jobs or relationships isn’t aggressive. It’s self-defense.