insight magazine

Ethics Engaged | Winter 2021

Eight Ways to Ethically Deal With Difficult People

You likely have a supervisor, coworker, or client you find challenging. Here are eight ways to navigate difficult relationships without compromising your ethics.
Elizabeth Pittelkow Kittner Head of Finance, International Legal Technology Association


If you have been in the workforce for any amount of time, you most likely have dealt with difficult people. It can be challenging to stay true to your own ethics and values when dealing with these personalities, but the way you behave around difficult people matters to your character and can impact your career. Let’s examine ways to be effective in these fraught interactions.

First, how do we define “difficult” people? A 2020 Psychology Today article defines it: “A personality is difficult when the individual does not honor and engage in the usual rules and social conventions taught by society for fairness and mutual respect. Difficult personalities can take many forms, including: engaging in a passive-aggressive communication style, being overtly hostile or verbally aggressive, having a bad temper, trying to split allegiances and loyalties of those around them, feeling threatened when someone seems too competent or strong, and getting defensive or even combative when someone holds them accountable for inappropriate behavior.”

Other traits that make for challenging interactions with a coworker, supervisor, or client may come to mind, and it is good to be aware of the characteristics you find difficult. Being aware of these characteristics allows you to consider some positive strategies to enable you to keep your cool and maintain your ethical standards even when dealing with difficult people. Here are eight effective techniques:

1. Be calm and collected: A sure way to add fire to a heated interaction is to become agitated. Staying calm enables you to deescalate emotion and move to a place where solutions can be discussed. Think about a duck on the water: Ducks look graceful gliding across the water, but hidden underneath the surface, their feet are paddling with gusto! Similarly, you may feel tension, irritation, and anxiety, but your expressions, tone, and body language can be calm and controlled. Use body language tips to reduce stress, such as moving your tongue to the bottom of your mouth and pushing your shoulders back, which can help release dopamine (a happy hormone) and reduce cortisol (a stress hormone).

2. Have generous assumptions: You can ease your own negative emotions by assuming that others are trying their best and that difficult people are acting out because something difficult is happening to them. Since it is unlikely that you will ever fully understand why someone is acting poorly, giving them the benefit of the doubt will help you feel compassion for them.

3. Build camaraderie and respect: Some difficult people are easier to work with when you connect with them about what is meaningful to them outside of work. When people feel cared about and respected, they are more likely to do the same for others. If someone does not want to share much about their personal life, think about some topics they might feel comfortable discussing, like their favorite sports team or what they are proud of in their career. Keeping the questions positive and open-ended helps lead to positive and in-depth conversations. Consider your body language here, too: It is good to keep your arms open instead of crossed and your eye contact directed at the person instead of looking elsewhere (like your phone).

4. Understand their position and express empathy: We each have unique experiences and individual personality traits that influence our attitudes and actions. Building camaraderie helps to understand where people are coming from. If you do not understand why someone is acting in a particular way, ask questions in a genuine attempt to understand. Even if you do not agree with or fully understand their position, asking them questions may help them to feel more understood, and may help you answer their opposition or objections. Reflective listening may help in this situation, too. You can incorporate phrases like, “If I may summarize, I believe you said ______, am I understanding that correctly?”

5. Explain your position: Helping someone understand your perspective may help them to understand your intentions. People like to know the rationale or the why behind decisions, which helps with buy-in. You can also explain how their behavior affects you and others. To a large extent, we get the behavior we accept. If we explain that certain behaviors are unacceptable, we are not likely to see them as much in our interactions.

6. Do your work well: When you are dependable and produce high-quality work, you build armor against difficult people who are negative toward you or the work you are doing. Reflect upon how others interact with you and if you are doing anything that can be improved. Perhaps a change to your behavior—like incorporating more reflective and empathic listening—will reduce negative behavior toward you.

7. Bring the issue to the appropriate people: If a difficult person is acting unethically, discuss it with the right authority, which could be HR, a supervisor, an owner or officer, or a governmental agency. Leaders may want to consider if that person is the right fit for the organization or if they need additional coaching or performance improvement to continue moving forward. If this person’s difficult behavior crosses the line into sexual harassment or discrimination, you can report this to the Illinois Department of Human Rights or the appropriate authority. You can also go to other people if you feel it would be helpful to document it or if someone else could speak with the difficult person to influence their behavior. Additionally, the difficult person may be dealing with challenging circumstances and may need additional support that HR could help facilitate.

8. Ask a trusted mentor to coach you: Discussing problematic interactions you have with other people may help you learn other techniques. Being heard by someone can also help you manage your emotions and find a way forward.

If after trying these strategies, the difficult person is still unwilling or unable to change, try to reduce your interactions with them, up to and including leaving the organization. Strive to surround yourself with people who have keen emotional intelligence in their interactions or who are willing to be coached. Regardless of your title or role, you can be a leader within your organization who leads with respect, empathy, and a desire to do well and help others.

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  1. Karen A Okwu | Jan 09, 2022
    Thank you for this amazing share.

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