Tips for Handling Difficult People: Part 1


As a conflict coach, I do a lot of reading about dealing with difficult personalities. Life hands all of us our own valuable research on the subject, too! If you want to get a little academic on it and check out a great book in this field, try Bill Eddy’s It’s All Your Fault.

In this series of posts I will use Eddy’s It’s All Your Fault to explain what a high conflict personality is and how to deal with such personalities in the workplace. In this post (Part 1), I’ll explore the basics and some what-not-to-do tips. In future posts, I will explore tips for specific personality types and general to-do’s for getting along with difficult people.

Let’s get this difficult personality party started!

What is a high conflict personality?

You probably work with a wide range of personalities. Some people are easy-going, while others tend towards instant outrage and manufactured drama. People with high conflict personalities (or HCP’s) tend to be rigid and uncompromising. They may use the same failing strategy repeatedly and not adapt well to change. These are not folks who roll with things! An HCP may refuse to heal from a loss and may act as though no one else has ever experienced the same hardship. (I once heard a man complaining that he hadn’t worked in twenty years because his mother died. Mine died a few years ago, too, but somehow I can still maintain employment. Go figure!) You may also observe a HCP as being unable to reflect on their own behavior and see their responsibility for a negative outcome. An HCP will have difficulty empathizing with others, but will quickly blame others. With an HCP, it really is all your fault all the time.

While this paints the picture of a horrible human being, it can help to view HCPs as struggling rather than simply behaving badly. The struggle is real for people who behave like this. To understand it imagine yourself having a great day in a world without speech. Everyone you meet on this imaginary day, in this imaginary world of only nonverbal communication will either give you a big bear hug, a pat on the back, or maybe a friendly handshake. Those touches and that connection feel great, and you feel happy to have the interactions, making you likely to respond with kindness.

Now, imagine that you have an auto-immune condition which makes even the lightest touch from others extremely painful, much like a severe sunburn. How do those hugs, pats, and handshakes from those same people feel now? They might range anywhere from unpleasant to excruciating. Notice that the intent of the “toucher” has not changed, but your reaction definitely would. Instead of feeling good and wanting to react with kindness, you feel bad or pained, and those feelings naturally come through in your reactions. Every touch is dangerous to you.

This imaginary auto-immune condition is exactly what it’s like for an HCP. HCPs often have internal upsets that are triggered by normal interactions causing them to react inappropriately and blame others for the pain they experience.

With that understanding, how can you handle people who feel this way?

Tip #1: Don’t Take Personal Attacks Personally

Honestly, this isn’t easy because these attacks are designed to be personal. It’s the point! Often these attacks use what Eddy calls “Blamespeak.” Blamespeak is emotionally intense and out of proportion to the issues. It’s very personal, perhaps making reference to your intelligence, sanity, memory, ethics, character, or appearance. In Blamespeak, it’s all your fault; the speaker feels no responsibility for the problem or for finding the solution. It’s also out of context, ignoring all the good you’ve done and all of the bad the speaker has done. Lastly, it’s often shared with others to emphasize the point and induce shame. Horrible, right?

So, with all of that, just how does one avoid taking it personally? First, recognize that instinct to take it personally. Do you feel the need to defend yourself? Are your emotions rising? Are you thinking “It’s all your fault” about the other person? Remain present and conscious so that you don’t respond with high conflict behavior, too. Simply recognizing that the instinct is to take it personally can help calm your mind. You might also want to get a little zen on this by taking some time away to meditate and calm your mind.

Another way to avoid taking it personally is to remind yourself that it’s unconscious on the part of the speaker and part of a long-standing pattern of thinking that has absolutely nothing to do with you or the current situation. There’s always been a target of blame for this difficult person. Right now it’s you, but soon it might be someone else. Remember, this isn’t about you! This HCP is just trying to get you to play the “bad guy” role for the time being, but you don’t need to accept the part.

You can also make our interactions about problem solving instead of taking it personally. HCP’s avoid solving problems by becoming preoccupied with blame and making personal attacks. Don’t get locked into the blame game. Make your new game trying to get the HCP into a state where problem-solving is possible. That is a game worth winning.

Lastly, take care of yourself and get help if you need it. Maintain your physical and emotional well-being. Keep up positive working relationships and friendships that aren’t riddled with conflict. If you still feel like you are taking things personally, seek guidance from a mentor, counselor, conflict coach, or ADR specialist.

Tip #2: Don’t Give Negative Feedback

According to Eddy, the cycle of high conflict thinking maintains and escalates with three steps: (1) Mistaken Assessment of Danger (MAD), (2) Behavior that’s Aggressively Defensive (BAD), (3) Negative Feedback. Basically, normal social interactions induce fear in an HCP who mistakenly perceive danger, thought it doesn’t often present itself as the type of fear you’d recognize. This mistaken assessment of danger leads to bad behavior (blamespeak, yelling, etc.). Negative feedback is essential to the continuation of the cycle, which is why it is critical not to provide this fuel to the high-conflict fire. Without negative feedback, there is no additional stimulus for an HCP to mistakenly perceive as danger, and the cycle can screech to a halt.

I hope the above explanation of high conflict personalities is helpful. Check back next week for tips on dealing with specific personality types like narcissists, histrionics, borderlines, and anti-socials.

Krista J. Roche is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Great info Krista; even when you know all this, the reminders are helpful and affirming. It can be mentally and personally exhausting to “rise above” over and over, but you just have to.


So true! Even when you know what you should do in a challenging situation, it is difficult to do…over and over! I think of it as a practice. You never get perfect, but you keep at it.


I’ve decided to be the “light” and avoid the darkness. The darkness in other employees can take hold and make your job miserable.

Katarina Hong

Love these tips! It’s such a great reminder that there are different types of people and everyone handles things differently and you just have accept it and keep moving forward. Thanks for posting!


Great advice. I’m there now with a HCP. Wish I had this article a few weeks ago. I did take it personally and lost it. Something I have never done before. Over the last two years I’ve gone out of my way helping others, being a team player. But this one person, high maintenance, I lost my patience. It would take me all day to help the person, and I ended up working late to get my work done. Next week they couldn’t remember anything learned the past week. Cycle started over again. I have stopped working with this person, but it seems now I’m the bad person. At some point you have to move on to keep yourself emotionally stable.

Wendy Dutenhoeffer

Thanks for a great article Krista. I especially like the auto-immune analogy. It makes you step back and look at this from another’s view. I’m looking forward to next week’s post.

Avatar photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Great post, Krista! Dealing with difficult people isn’t easy, but it really helps to go in knowing that “this isn’t about you! This HCP is just trying to get you to play the “bad guy” role for the time being, but you don’t need to accept the part.” Awesome advice and practical tips that we can all use.