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Lincoln Composite Squadron
Civil Air Patrol


January 2005
More Professional Development Resources

Civil Air Patrol

Coping with Difficult People

Submitted by: Steve Hubbell & Bruce Marxsen, Professional Development Officers, Lincoln Composite Squadron

CopingEach of us has a 'difficult' person hiding within. Some have it well hidden and only let it our rarely. Yet, others use their difficult personality readily, much to the distress of others. Most often people will channel their difficult personality types into competitive sports, displaced responses to irresponsible acts or people, and occasionally in the form of familiarity with family or close friends. There are certain postulates of reality:

  • Anyone can be difficult
  • Certain people just may not like you
  • You just may not like certain people
  • You may be the difficult person
  • The behavior you find difficult, has served the person well
  • Nobody is perfect
  • Accepting people for whom or what they are is tough
  • You cannot select family members based on their personalities

Dealing with difficult people in a workplace environment is the most common situation, because difficult people within a family situation are considered routine and socially acceptable.


People do not choose to be difficult. Behavior in people is usually a product of several factors, including individual perspective and reactive center, mode of dealing with situations, prioritized needs, familial imprinting, and life experiences. In all of the above, there is a tendency to complicate the matter to label the characteristics that make people individual and unique. Personal difficulties between people are usually traced back to the differences in the following:

  • Value differences
  • Status inequities
  • Competition
  • Insecurity
  • Misunderstandings


The uniqueness of each individual depends on his or her role within the workplace, with one or more secondary influences that will affect how the person is perceived to the outside world There are seven primary personality roles in the workplace:

  • Artisan- the worker that creates moods, environments, things, and ideas.

  • Sage- the communicators that seek life's enjoyments to share with others.

  • Server- the workers behind the scene taking care of everything and everybody

  • Motivator- the worker that is uplifting with an ability to be compassionate

  • Warrior- those who are the productive, organized doers, planning and enforcing plans

  • Chief- the leaders handling large-scale efforts with power and authority

  • Scholar- the people with a thirst of knowledge that will try everything to see what it is like

Each personality role is also dominated by a primary perspective and out look on life:

  • Surviving Perspective- seeking out simplicity over complexity

  • Structured Perspective- viewing life through the limitations of rules and authority

  • Competition Perspective- striving for success, seeing competition in everything

  • Partnership Perspective- focusing on teamwork and relationships with others

  • Teaching Perspective- seeking and teaching the broader vision of possibilities

Each personality role is then dominated by a primary reactive method when circumstances are no longer ordinary:

  • Thinking Centered- reaction based on thinking about an event when it happens, then feeling or moving, usually showing limited emotion

  • Emotional Centered- reaction based on perception of other's feelings when an event happens, then thinking or moving quickly

  • Motion Centered- reaction based on action and motion before thinking or feeling


In most cases a difficult person is someone working from a negative side of their personality, rather than a conscious effort to be difficult. The person is often unaware of how they may be affecting others. There is value in taking the time to understand another person's point of view. Dealing with difficult people begins with identifying behaviors that trigger a strong reaction in you.


The combination of workplace role, primary perspective, and reactive method make up the categorized difficult personalities that are demonstrated by people when situations are out of the ordinary. It is important to note that in routine or normal settings the uniqueness of people in a group is what makes life interesting and enjoyable. However, when the situation turns away from normal or routine, the difficult personality inside can come out in others as less than enlightening or as a means of perceiving others. :

  • The Ultra-Sensitive Person- this person is routinely shy or reserved. When under pressure the slightest most innocent things said to him or her can be misconstrued and taken personally causing an emotional crack.

    • The Solution- when discussing things with this person, take the time to ensure all points are understood before moving on, and never making anything personal.

  • The Resister- this person is not the first to adapt to any form of change. When under pressure for immediate change, this personality will turn negative although, not usually choosing to openly express opposition to the change. The difficulty will be in the slow implementation of change or under extreme pressure to change, sabotage.

    • The Solution- the best way is to involve these people in the change, making them part of the process. Another way is to introduce gradual change, allowing him or her to get used to it. Sudden change heightens their negativity.

  • The Gossip- this person feels a loss of control over his or her environment (or people) and gets control back by controlling information, even if it is not truthful information. This person feels a sense of importance with creating and spreading stories about people or things. Under pressure the information spread grows increasingly negative.

    • The Solution- the best way to neutralize a gossip is to provide people with the group with timely and accurate information at all times, leaving little motivation for them to listen to the gossip.

  • The Critic- this person is on a mission to disagree with anything that is said, in order to be 'right' no matter what. In a routine working environment, chooses negative feedback and fault with every idea. Under pressure, this person will find problems with every attempt for success, never identifying solutions or seeing opportunity.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle a critic is to ask for specifics, or evidence to support his or her reason for disagreeing. You need to politely emphasize that your intent is to incorporate their input because you value their opinions and want to fully understand.

  • The Blame Shifter- this person routinely never wants to accept responsibility for his or her own shortcomings or mistakes. Their goal is to shift the blame onto others or situations beyond their control. Under pressure they seem to feel better when others get into trouble.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle a blame shifter is to be very specific (with examples) in how his or her behavior, mistakes, or miscalculations were the problem. You cannot be vague.

  • The Micro- this person will routinely focus on the smallest details or mistakes, and forget the larger picture or reason for doing something. He or she would rather ensure that the spelling or grammatical errors are correct, instead of the message being sent. They are often left out of the loop of information because he or she will just question the most insignificant information. Under pressure this person becomes inappropriately negative and is regarded as too picky to involve.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle this person is to involve them in evaluating an entire project or assignment. The goal is to get them involved in the macro process of evaluating strengths, weaknesses, benefits, and objectives. If he or she focuses on the greater (macro) picture, they will not have time for the small details and negativity.

  • The Steam Roller- this person expresses negativity by steam rolling over people. On a routine basis, he or she is autocratic, dictatorial, and at times tyrannical. Under pressure they can become very angry, hostile, and will take their frustrations out on others.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle this person is to not take it. Be assertive and express to the person or supervisor how it makes you feel and specify how you need to be communicated differently.

  • The Child- this person behaves like a child who does not get his or her way. Not getting their way causes negativity. Under pressure this person will complain that others are not cooperating fully and due to the stress will not be able to make any progress.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle this person is to provide a constant and supportive environment, letting them know they are doing well. But, high stress situations should be avoided.

  • The Martyr- this person comes in early and leaves late, giving his or her best and never feels appreciated. Under pressure they will declare they may as well 'quit' because their work goes unnoticed and gravely unappreciated. Under such pressure, they just may go and sacrifice for someone or something else.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle this person is constant positive feedback, particularly in front of teammates. All they want is praise for their commitment.

  • The Pessimist- this person is unhappy, expecting the world to collapse around them at any time. Not much can be done to make them happy. Under pressure, when disaster does not happen, he or she will do whatever possible to ensure that disaster happens.

    • The Solution- changing a pessimist's foreboding attitude is not easy. The best way is to have this person adopt some new specific positive habits to replace the existing negative ones. With practice and positive reinforcement, these new behaviors will take hold.

  • The Uncommitted- this person does not take work seriously, and sees it as a low priority in his or her life. Their focus is trying to do as little as possible so as to find time to take care of their personal agenda items. Under pressure, this person will be even less productive or cooperative.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle this person is to set and communicate clear, concise standards, goals, and expectations. Then, closely monitor performance.

  • The Not-My-Jobber- this person expresses negativity by refusing to do certain unpleasant tasks, stating that what is expected is not in his or her job description. Under pressure this person uses it as a means to get back at colleagues.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle this person is to find some development opportunities, because he or she has lost enthusiasm for work and needs incentive.

  • The Perfectionist- when things are not done perfectly, this person turns negative. Under pressure, expectations of themselves and others turns unrealistic, casting a negative aspect across an entire team.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle the person and the situation is to not take comments from the perfectionist seriously, because he or she is really expressing their own inadequacies. Realistic expectations should be set and expressed to them.

  • The Contrary- this person routinely wants in on every discussion and will voice a contrary point of view, just to be perceived as a player. Under pressure, he or she will try to voice an opinion that may be right, but are so set in their methods of being contrary they do not voice themselves well, and will turn very negative because nobody listens to them.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle the person is to ask for valid support information every time a contrary opinion is voiced. Over time he or she will learn they need to back up all comments with facts and will either change or stop being contrary in your presence.

  • The Bucket Dipper- this person is known for stating the obvious, usually just to feel involved in your life. Routinely this person is not negative, just irritating. Under pressure, this person will have a hard time finding an original thought to share and will not be of much use to the team.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle the person is to be assertive and state clearly to them how what they do makes you feel. You need to point out that how you feel is not personal because you do value their friendship and support.

  • The Victim- this person covers their inadequacies with a variety of victim-type responses. Routinely, when something goes wrong, it will be he or she who are the victim pointing out the inadequacies or hidden agendas of others that have caused the problem in which they are once again the victim. Under pressure, this person will work harder at setting up others to take the fall, than to stop a problem from occurring.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle the person is to give them responsibilities that are closely monitored and evaluated for progress. This person in a small group or team will be the one that is socializing more than working, and every time that is witnessed it should be curtailed.

  • The Space Invader- this person does not seem to notice social boundaries, assuming you want his or her unsolicited advice. Under pressure this person will focus on working to fix any problem you have, instead of the their own work related problems.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle this person is to clearly establish boundaries between social and work-related issues they must adhere to. You must be assertive in telling this person that you can handle your problems, but you will seek them out if you feel they can be of help.

  • The Nitro- this person routinely wants total control of any situation, and when control is lost he or she 'loses' it. They feel that everyone and everything is sabotaging their superior effort. Under pressure, this person can turn hostile, belligerent, and aggressive, which should never be accepted in a work environment.

    • The Solution- Do not be afraid to report openly aggressive actions by this type of personality. It is best not to be confrontational, as this can lead to more violence. Let the person 'lose' it, without confrontation and then talk to them about their anger when they are in a 'controlled' state. Continued behavior of this nature should be reported to upper management.

  • The Over-Committer- this person is impatient with their mind never in the 'present'. Routinely they are thinking about what is coming up and will accept the responsibility of getting the 'future' taken care of, usually over-committing. Under pressure, this person will make mistakes due to rushing, have accidents, and miss deadlines. They will often disrupt or interrupt others because they feel their concerns are more important.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle this person is to ask them to slow down (verbally and with their actions), explaining to them there is plenty of time to get things done error free. Help them set realistic deadlines, and if they take on too much, help them cut back.

  • The PWBA (Person With Bad Attitude)- this person wears a bad mood like a garment. He or she is not happy unless they are complaining about someone or something. This is a sign that their unhappiness stems from outside the work environment. Under pressure, this person will exhibit extreme negativity blaming others without taking responsibility.

    • The Solution- the best way to handle these people is to befriend them outside of the work environment, but assertively tell he or she that their negativity is disruptive to the group effort. Let them know you will be glad to meet with them off-hours to discuss 'things' in a social setting, but you will not be tolerating their negativity while at work.

Special Note: In an abnormal situation, the perceived difficulty may be in others, in you, or in how you are viewing others. You cannot always blame the other person. It may be you, or how you perceive them.


Coping strategies begins with accepting people as they are, not as you would like them to be. Ten Ways to Cope with Negative People:

  1. By far the easiest option is avoidance. If you do not have to interact with the difficult person, then do not. Put physical or psychological distance between yourself and the difficult person.

  2. Lose the 'shoulds'. Although the difficult person should get their act together, most will not. We spend too much time wishing the difficult person's attitude and behaviors should change, or hoping someone should do something about the person, or you should not have to put up with it.

  3. If possible, make the difficult behavior irrelevant. Focus on what the difficult person is good at besides tripping your trigger. What are their useful strengths? How could you build your relationship around those strengths and bypass the difficult behaviors?

  4. Recognize that an attitude or negativity problem exists. Do not ignore it, if it is affecting that person's performance, your performance, the performance of others, or the relationship with your internal and external customers.

  5. Acknowledge any underlying causes for the negative attitude. Negativity has many causes, including personal problems, work-related stress, job insecurity, loss of loyalty, lack of advancement, upper management, boredom, and so forth. It will help to get the person to see the cause of their negativity themselves. It is important to recognize that whatever the cause of the negativity, it is often justified and the difficult person has a right to feel that way.

  6. Neutralize your reaction to the behavior. Being neutral in your reaction is not the same thing as approving of the behavior, it simply means whatever they do, it will not phase you. Give the difficult person nothing to push against.

  7. Help the person take responsibility for their actions. It is ultimately the difficult person's responsibility to change his or her attitudes and behaviors at work. Even though the person may feel justified, negative attitudes and behaviors are still not appropriate in the workplace. As a teammate or supervisor, you need the person to assume ownership for his or her actions.

  8. Replace negative, inappropriate reactions with different, more acceptable actions. The difficult person may not realize the affects of their behavior or actions on others, and may need your help to change and come across as more positive.

  9. Instill positive attitudes in others. Be the role model for the difficult person through your actions and behaviors. You can prevent their negativity by remaining positive and realizing you also may have one or more of the negative personality traits that affect others.

  10. Upper management cannot legislate good behavior all the time, because anybody can have a 'bad hair day'. The best way to modify difficult behavior is to bring peer pressure to bear on difficult behavior patterns that disrupt the workplace. This will likely send out a message that there is a 'social norm' or code of conduct that colleagues will support and reduce the chances of increasing conflicts based on conflicting and difficult personalities.

What NOT to do With Difficult People:

  • Do not argue
  • Do not push them farther into their negativity because they will only get worse
  • Do not waste your wit on people who are too serious
  • Do not waste your time banging your head against a brick wall
  • Do not say, "I know how you feel"
  • Do not use putdowns or sarcasm
  • Do not waste your energy trying to win someone over
  • Do not think of yourself as perfect
  • Do not allow yourself to be verbally abused, walk away from it

What to do if You Feel Difficult:

  • Learn that coping with others means learning to cop with yourself
  • Take a step back and take a deep breath
  • Observe the overall situation as objectively as you can
  • View the situation from a totally different perspective
  • Realize what others are saying is just as valid as what you are saying
  • Draw on your sense of humor
  • Seek a Win-Win situation to get yourself out of the immediate problem
  • Find someone who can help you work on this negative aspect of yourself and work on it together
  • Do not give up on yourself
  • Learn to manage your own boundaries better
  • Remain tactful and diplomatic

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