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Dealing with Difficult People


Most of us have one, don’t we – the person who gets under our skin, the one we find difficult to deal with? Often we see that person as responsible for the problem we experience. We may not even realise we are doing this.


How do we feel when we get triggered by someone we consider to be difficult?:

  • Annoyed
  • Drained
  • Overwhelmed
  • Vulnerable
  • Demotivated
  • Paralysed
  • Stuck in short-term thoughts and feelings


How do we turn this around?

By trying to understand the ‘difficult’ person, their role and their context.

Probing and asking useful questions

We need to surface the thoughts and feelings our interaction with this person evokes. Do they trigger unpleasant memories from the past? Uncomfortable associations? Do we experience them as challenging some deeply held value?

Working with an executive coach can be an effective way to do this. We may find the questions confronting, but the insights we gain, and the strategies they generate, will be relevant far beyond the relationship in question. More importantly, they will be appropriate to our needs, not those of others in different contexts.

Empowering ourselves to change

Sometimes we may want to change but feel unable to. We resign ourselves to our perceived inability, and stay stuck. This is not uncommon, and can be hard to detect. When this happens we need to develop a strategy that helps us shift our mood out of resignation and into ambition, so that we feel capable of change.

Expanding our perspective on the other person

Our experience informs the opinions we develop about others, and influences the way we respond to them. However experience can also mislead. We may be too quick to jump to conclusions, or treat our opinions as fact without proper basis.

We need to cultivate an open mind by learning to develop alternative hypotheses about the intentions or aspirations of our ‘difficult person’. An open mind will help us respond more effectively, and better protect the things that matter to us.



Creating boundaries

Occasionally, however much we are prepared to change, it will not be possible to find an acceptable way of relating to our ‘difficult’ person so we will need to create boundaries to protect ourselves. Depending on the situation, we may need to name the circumstances, or behaviour we find unacceptable. We may even need to withdraw from the relationship. This too is part of our learning.

An opportunity for learning

In my experience, we start by seeing it as an opportunity for learning. Learning to explore the way we see ourselves, and the way we relate to others…especially that ‘difficult’ person. We need to understand that the only person we can change is our self. Opening up to inquiry allows us to see our self, and our relationships, in a different light. It creates space to move – for us, and others.

Case Study:


Geraldine is the well-known, public face of a major organisation. She presents regularly, and with confidence, to a wide range of industry forums. But she struggled in her relationship with her colleague, Malcolm, the high revenue-generating Director of Sales.

Geraldine felt intimidated in the presence of Malcolm, a large man with a domineering style. She felt shut down and unable to say what she wanted to. Worse, Malcolm’s success was easily measured in dollars while Geraldine’s was less tangible. On probing, Geraldine identified a pattern of earlier situations where she felt similarly intimidated. It was a pattern tracing back to her childhood, with a domineering, accountant, father. Malcolm wasn’t the cause, merely the trigger. What’s more, Geraldine realised she had become resigned to the possibility of changing this pattern. She noticed her body slumping, her shoulders rounding and her chest closing.

Through exploring her relationship with Malcolm, Geraldine gained key insights, which she incorporated into her leadership development plan. The insights went well beyond her relationship with Malcolm and highlighted a broader need to strengthen her confidence and sense of self. We also worked somatically, looking at her posture and body language to support a stronger presence.


Embracing the learning

Through exploring the way we respond to relationships we experience as difficult, we empower ourselves to create different, more positive, relationships. Inevitably this will take time and effort. Occasionally it may be that we choose to limit our interaction with a specific individual.

What is important is that the decisions we make, and the responses we adopt, come from a position of grounded self-awareness, and conscious choice.



Best regards,
Gillian Turner

About the author: Gillian Turner has been an Executive Coach & Mentor with the Stephenson Mansell Group since 2009. An experienced CEO and company director, Gillian draws on an impressive thirty-year international executive career focused on finance and professional services.

Skilled at bridging cultures – national, corporate and professional – Gillian has worked in multinationals, ASX listed companies, SMEs’ and NFPs, and led major organisational transformations.  She holds law degrees from Harvard and Sydney Universities, and graduate diplomas in coaching and counselling.

Gillian’s clients include CEOs, board directors, senior executives, legal & tax practitioners, and emerging talent. A key focus is on exploring personal authenticity and career aspirations, deepening emotional awareness, strengthening influencing skills and encouraging leadership that is both courageous and mindful.