How to Deal With Difficult People in the Workplace, in Families, and in Friendships

A caring young woman sitting on a sofa in the living room and listening to her sad friend that is having problems.

urbazon / Getty Images

When someone’s behavior makes it difficult for you to do your job, carry out your everyday duties, or maintain a healthy relationship with them, they can be defined as “difficult.” Ranging from the words they say to their inability to work effectively with others, difficult people can drain you mentally, physically, and emotionally.

While a better understanding of the root of their behavior doesn’t erase your frustration, it can help you with techniques to deal with difficult people. We look at common reasons for difficult behavior, how you can remain calm and composed in the midst of a challenging situation, and how you can deal with conflicts in the workplace and with family.

Understanding Difficult Behavior

When a person makes life more stressful for you, it can be challenging to have empathy for them, or try to understand their point of view. But knowing the background story can give you effective tools for coping.

Reasons for Difficult Behavior

A person can become irritable, aggressive, intolerant, and noncommunicative for a number of both internal and external reasons, including:

  • Excessive stress. Whether it’s from work or family obligations, stress can cause people to exhibit difficult behaviors. They may become anxious and hard to deal with, moody, short-tempered, or critical.
  • Personality issues. People with strong personalities tend to butt heads. That can be even more apparent when the two people disagree, and each wants their own way.
  • Triggering events. People who experienced verbal abuse or trauma may immediately lash out if they think that type of behavior is being directed toward them. Triggers can also cause childhood trauma to resurface.
  • Unresolved conflicts. A tense issue that hasn’t been dealt with is the constant elephant in the room. And the tension can bring irritability and frustration with it.
  • Communication issues. Misunderstandings, and the inability or lack of effort to communicate clearly, lead to difficult behavior, especially if someone feels slighted.
  • Personal issues. Relationship problems, financial problems, sickness, mental health issues, and any number of personal concerns can seep into behavior at work and with others.

Author Natasha Bowman, JD, SPHR, noticed that her behavior changed as she dealt with the responses of family members and friends to her bipolar diagnosis.

“Because of the stigma associated with mental illness, many didn't want me to disclose my diagnosis because they feared what would happen to my career or how people would perceive them as someone closely related to me. During this and previous times that I had conflicted with my close family and friends, I noticed a pattern and was also triggered by them,” she explains.

When you know what causes a person to become difficult and on edge, you can figure out what steps you need to take to deal with their behavior.

Maintaining Calm and Composure

If someone is yelling at you, being rude, or even threatening, it’s hard to remain calm. But staying level-headed can be the key to keeping a difficult situation from escalating.

“First and foremost, it is typically not prudent to engage in any type of challenge or restorative conversation when emotions are high,” explains Joseph Galasso, PsyD, Chief Executive Officer and Clinical Psychologist at Baker Street Behavioral Health. “If you are trying to help someone stay calm, model calmness, make sure your voice is steady, and you are clear in what you want to communicate. Be assertive and ask for exactly what you want.”

You can also take steps to regulate your own behavior by taking deep, calming breaths, practicing focused mindfulness, or even taking a break from the situation by removing yourself and coming back to the conversation later. Being aware of your own triggers and coping mechanisms, and harnessing your ability to stay calm, can be the key to a more successful outcome.

Self-awareness and self-regulation are critical skills for managing problematic behavior. You can stay calm and composed in challenging situations by recognizing your triggers and learning to regulate your emotions,” Bowman notes.

Communicating in an understanding, compassionate way also helps.

“The way you communicate with [difficulty] is imperative as well. To avoid conflict and avoid potentially losing a relationship, I try to understand their emotions and perspectives, which is, again, demonstrating empathy. Also, use the 'I' statement. Using the 'I' statement avoids accusing or blaming a person but expresses how their feelings affect you,” states Bowman.

Effective Communication Strategies

When you are face-to-face with someone who is being difficult, your first instinct may be to respond in anger or frustration. However, research shows that practicing empathy can help foster a sense of connection. Although it takes work, when you actively listen to someone and try to understand what they are going through, it can help to de-escalate the situation.

Using the 'I' statement avoids accusing or blaming a person but expresses how their feelings affect you.

At the same time, offering a listening ear doesn’t mean that you allow yourself to be mistreated. You can also effectively communicate by being assertive and letting the other person know what type of behavior you expect. Helping them to understand what you will and will not tolerate in the workplace, in the family dynamic, or in a relationship can create the boundaries that you need.

“Be clear about your boundaries and communicate them assertively. Don't let problematic behavior cross your boundaries,” Bowman says.

Another communication strategy is incorporating laughter into the situation when appropriate.

“Using humor is great if it comes naturally to you. Same with reframing; both of which I categorize as distractions. If you can get someone else thinking of something else and that helps them calm down physiologically, that is great,” notes Dr. Galasso.

Dealing With Difficult People in Specific Situations

The strategy you use to deal with an uncooperative coworker can be different than how you’d handle a rude, critical family member. And both of those methods can change when you’re dealing with a difficult friend.

With workplace challenges, understanding why a person is being difficult can help with the approach to handling them. A whopping 83% of people say they suffer from work-related stress. Do they feel like their job is threatened by you or another coworker? Do they have a long commute or stressful meetings once they arrive at work? No matter the root cause for the behavior, experts say the key thing is not to take it personally.

“When dealing with difficult behavior, remember that their behavior says a lot about their character, not yours. Don't engage. When possible, I find the 1:3 rule applies to engaging. If you have to engage the person, do it only one out of three times [that] they are provocative,” advises Dr. Galasso. “Let your manager know that you are constantly being challenged by your co-worker’s difficult behaviors and ask them to intervene.”

When possible, I find the 1:3 rule applies to engaging. If you have to engage the person, do it only one out of three times [that] they are provocative.

Family conflicts present a different dynamic. These are people who are often with you day in and day out. Because these are more intimate relationships, where difficult behaviors and disagreements may have been brewing for years, setting boundaries often provides the best solution. “Be assertive and set clear expectations about what a respectful relationship looks like. Be selective with the information you share; trust is earned,” notes Dr. Galasso.

Putting firm boundaries in place is also a good way to handle difficult relationships with friends and in social settings. Make your limits clear and communicate what behavior you will and will not tolerate. Be willing to leave a gathering if necessary to preserve your peace of mind.

Ultimately, dealing with someone who is difficult can be an unpleasant, stress-inducing experience. But being equipped with the tools to deal with the situation can help you find an effective resolution.

“Dealing with difficult people can be challenging, but by protecting your mental health and practicing effective communication and self-care strategies, you can navigate challenging situations with resilience and grace. Remember to prioritize your well-being, set boundaries, seek support, and stay centered, and you'll be better equipped to handle difficult behavior healthily and productively,” Bowman concludes.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. New York State Office of Mental Health. Common Stress Reactions - A Self-Assessment.

  2. Teding van Berkhout E, Malouff JM. The efficacy of empathy training: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trialsJ Couns Psychol. 2016;63(1):32-41.

  3. The American Institute of Stress. 42 Worrying Workplace Stress Statistics.