Tips on Handling Difficult People: Part 3


Welcome back to the third and final post in this series on dealing with difficult people. So far we’ve discussed what NOT to do. Now, let’s transition to what TO do. As with Part 1 and Part 2, the guidance below is based on Bill Eddy’s It’s All Your Fault.

Tip #7: Connect Using Your E.A.R.

According to Eddy, what every person, including every high conflict personality (HCP) is really looking for is a little Empathy, Attention, and Respect (EAR). We would all feel a little better if we got regular doses of this, right?

Empathy – the ability to sincerely identify with and care about another person’s feelings and life experience.

Attention –brief, uninterrupted listening, followed by repeating the essence of what you heard so that the person feels that you were paying attention.

Respect – Let the person know something that you truly respect about him or her.

So, why don’t we give this to people? The short answer is that we don’t feel like it, especially after a personal attack or a difficult interaction. However, if you develop the emotional self-discipline to offer your EAR, you will find situations becoming less high-conflict.

You may also be afraid that you have to listen to a HCP for hours. That isn’t necessary. Just a little attentive listening might calm their fears so they can move into problem-solving mode. And, you can set your own boundaries for your time. That’s your choice!

You may also be concerned that you shouldn’t give empathy, attention or respect to someone you don’t agree with. However, you can empathize with the person, not the problem. Some examples of this might look like:

  • I’ll never know what really happened, but I care about you and want to help you solve this problem.
  • We’ll probably always see this differently, so let’s try to focus on what we can do together about it.

Tip #8: Analyze Your Realistic Options

When you are thick in the muck of a high-conflict situation, write a list of what you see as all of the options for resolving the situation. Then, check each item for high-conflict thinking. When dealing with a high-conflict situation, our own thinking might escalate into that territory as well so it is important to step back and analyze your options. For example. if you aren’t getting along with a co-worker, quitting would be an impulsive, high-conflict approach. So would spreading rumors about your co-worker in the hopes she might get fired. On the other hand, reaching out to a supervisor or an ADR practitioner might be a realistic option. Check your list of options and go with the one that is the most realistic choice to try first

Tip #9: Respond Quickly to Misinformation

Often when dealing with someone who is being difficult, you will find that misinformation abounds. You may find yourself thinking, “that’s not how it happened” or “that’s not what I said at all.” The trick is to understand what you need to respond to and what can be let go because a response would only seem like negative feedback that would further escalate the conflict.

In determining whether misinformation needs a response, think of who has received the inaccurate information. If it is just the HCP that has the inaccurate info, don’t respond. This would likely only result in argument. However, if the misinformation has spread, respond as quickly as possible being mindful not to escalate the conflict with your response. Your response should show empathy and respect for the HCP, while remaining clear on the facts. A good guideline (that I’ll discuss in another post) is to keep your response BIFF – brief, informational, friendly and firm.

Tip #10: Set Limits on Misbehavior

Setting limits on misbehavior involves two simple steps: (1) you establish the rules, and (2) you provide logical consequences if the rules are violated. The goal here is containment of an HCP’s misbehavior. When you establish the rules, you are thinking about your personal limits. You can chose to limit contact, limit the subjects you discuss together, to terminate the relationship altogether, or to leave the community/workplace/family in which the HCP is a member.

In enforcing those limits, it is important to be assertive. If you are highly aggressive, it will backfire. Now, you’re the one creating and maintaining conflict. However, if you are too passive, then you haven’t set any limits at all. Thing about Caesar Milan here and remember to be calm and assertive.

Tip #11: Choose Your Battles

It is true that you don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to. You also don’t have to provide negative feedback every time a co-worker uses bad behavior. Lower your expectations so that you don’t attack the HCP. It is wishful thinking that he or she will change lifetime personality patterns based on your feedback.

It might also be helpful for you to engage a positive advocate to helpful. This would be someone who can listen objectively and help you get some outside perspective. This would not be someone who wants to take over the problem and get personally involved in it on your behalf.

In the end, no matter who you’re dealing with, there are some things you just need to let go. Move on in peace towards people and situations that are positive and fulfilling.

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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Katarina Hong

Thanks for this series for tips on how to handle difficult people! You’ve given great insights and advice. Thanks again for sharing!

Karan Munze

I find this article helpful. I especially liked the EAR concept with the two sample responses at the end of Tip 7; Tip 10’s establishing the rules and setting consequences. This can help people preserve the dignity of their person. I like to be reminded that I don’t have to attend every argument I am invited to.


Good advice! I was familiar with the concept of choosing your battles, but I really like the wording “…you don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” I tend to feel like arguments just happen, but I’m sure there is a point, no matter how brief, when we make that decision to engage. Being conscious of it would be helpful.

Krista J. Roche

Thanks so much! I completely agree that when an argument seems to be organically appearing before you, it is hard to see it as an “invitation”. We could all (myself included) use a bit more mindfulness and consciousness at these moments so that we are able to reject the invitation to argue.