How to manage difficult people

I’m often asked how to manage difficult people, especially at this time of year, when we feel obliged to interact with people we normally avoid. If only life was like the story of the  Grinch who stole Christmas.


With a bit of magic and a different viewpoint, horrible people could be transformed into lovely characters.


Life would be so much nicer if we could do the same for those difficult people in our lives? Well, there is something we can do and it is pretty amazing.  First, we need to understand how people naturally react when their needs aren’t met. When needs are not met, we get frightened or angry. Logic disappears and we start to blame. We might see other people as the problem. If only they weren’t so disagreeable/selfish/thoughtless, our needs would be met. Researching conflict, Karpman discovered the “Drama Triangle”.

The Drama Triangle

Karpman found that people took on roles in conflict, which did not necessarily reflect the truth and which changed over the course of conflict. Often each person sees him/herself as the victim, and the other as the persecutor. The rescuer rushes in to provide temporary relief. We can play all three roles in our heads. As the victim seeing ourself as powerless,  blaming the villain in us for mistakes and trying to rescue ourselves by eating or distractions. This video describes the theory and the three roles of victim, persecutor and rescuer in more depth.

Neighbourhood Dispute: A Real Life Example of the Drama Triangle

As we came out after hearing a kindly older couple describe what sounded like “neighbours from hell”, my co-mediator said “Poor people. It sounds like their neighbours are really difficult people.”

Having been to quite a few neighbourhood mediations, I said: “We’ve only heard one side of the story, the other side might see it differently.”

An hour later, having listened to the other side from the young couple who felt harassed by their elderly neighbours, my colleague said: “Well, that gives a different perspective.”

To us, both couples were polite, friendly and seemingly reasonable in their outlook if you accepted their view of the situation. Yet each party saw the other as unreasonable, unpleasant and out to make their lives hell. The diagram shows how their perspective had created a fog that stopped them seeing the other party as people.   They looked to us to rescue them from the horrible people. 

Yet the rescuer can only provide temporary relief and only for one party if at all. As the diagram shows, by rushing in to fix, or judge a rescuer may make the situation worse

However, that is not our job as community mediators. Our job is to listen and coach. We try and clear away the fog of misunderstanding, give the parties the power to look at what they can do to make the situation better. If possible, we help them to see the situation more objectively and look at alternative ways of resolving the issues. Both parties invariably have one very important thing in common–they are unhappy and they want to resolve the issue. Taking away labels and understanding why people act the way they do clears the air for working towards a solution that suits both parties.

That may be the case sometimes,but  so and so really is difficult…

Why are difficult people difficult?

We describe people as difficult if they don’t do what we think they should do or when they prevent the meeting of needs (their own as well as others). I know I can be difficult—sometimes it’s the situation, sometimes just because I’m hungry or tired or upset by something unrelated.

We judge others by their behaviour, and ourselves by our intentions. When we are in the midst of disagreements and disputes, we look at others more negatively. We don’t know what is going on for that person. Perhaps in another situation, with another person, they might be lovely.

There are people who do horrible things and behave in ways that cause pain and distress.  And then there are some people who rub us up the wrong way. (Sandpaper people). The bad news is that there is no magic wand or silver bullet to “cure” them. Even the most drastic punishments may not change people’s behaviour.

So, what can we do? To resolve the problem we could try “Design Thinking”.

Design Thinking

The Design Thinking model was devised by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford as an improved way of tackling “wicked problems” (problems that are resistant to solutions). It consists of five stages: s: Empathise, Define (the problem), Ideate, Prototype, and Test. I’ll cover it briefly, for a full introduction, read this article.

Empathise: Set aside your own assumptions. Look at the situation from different angles.  Get more information and try and gain insight into the experience and perspective of others.

Define: Define what the core problem is, taking all the information and insights into consideration.

Ideate: Brainstorm. Think of all the possible solutions to the problem. Involve everyone and consider all ideas, even if they seem unworkable.

Prototype: Think about the possible solutions and how you could reality test them. Create a trial solution

Using Design Thinking with Difficult People


  • Be open minded, and flexible. You may not have the whole or only truth. There are many points of view.
  • What’s in it for them? Why might they want an end to the problem? What might you do for them or to improve things
  • Listen. Listening can be magic if you do it properly


  • Separate the problem from the person. Be clear about what the issues and impacts are and what your needs are. Try and see the situation as a bystander would.
  • Communicate. Speak tentatively and remove blame. Speak in a way that clarifies what your needs are and what the impact is. Make your request in a way that is easy to hear.


  • See the other person as part of the solution. Ask for their solution. Try and understand what they need and how your actions impact their life.
  • Talk tentatively. Don’t shoot down others’ ideas.
  • Be respectful
  • Ask for help


  • Work out one small step you can agree on
  • Try it out

And Finally

Sometimes whatever you do, the other person is not ready to change. Accept that sometimes things go wrong and we can’t always please everyone.

…we misunderstand our responsibility for others’ emotions. We are responsible to care about how others feel, but we are not responsible for how they feel. Their emotions are their choices. How we act can affect them—and we should always act with compassion and respect. But that is where our duty stops. When you take responsibility for others’ feelings, you begin to live dishonestly. You begin to calculate and manipulate in order to control others’ feelings. And by so doing, you surrender the possibility of both solving problems and connecting deeply.    Joseph Grenny

If you have 3 minutes, this video will give you some great insights into how our minds work in conflict and suggests some better ways of reacting. If you have found these tips useful, you will enjoy my regular roundup–ask for it here.