How to Work with a Difficult Person

Aug 18, 2021 | Change, Stress

Do you ever brace yourself when you know you have to meet with “that difficult person” [insert other description here]?

Maybe you’ve had so many dealings with this person that by now you know what to expect – and it’s not good.

The difficult person always seems to create conflict, or resist change.

Frustrating, right?

How are you supposed to work with – let alone lead – this person?

Of course every case is different, and there could be some power dynamics at play.

But here are 5 steps that I coach clients through when they are challenged to lead or work with a difficult person.

Step 1: Recognize the pattern and response

Start by becoming aware of your current perspective about the difficult person.

The brain is always in process of predicting what is going to happen, and how people are going to behave, in order to guide us. To do this, it’s using our prior experiences, emotions and beliefs.

So of course the brain is predicting more negative reactions and challenges with this person.

But the problem is that these predictions or assumptions are likely contributing to the dynamic and to future interactions.

When we brace ourselves for a negative interaction, or approach someone while feeling defensive or annoyed, this can often be sensed by the other person.

Even without words, our brains and nervous systems are constantly reading social signals such as facial expressions and body language in order to decide whether or not we’re safe. This reflexive and usually unconscious process is called neuroception. (For more as relates to teams, check out this post.)

Given prior experiences, it’s very likely that we’re not giving off positive social cues for this person to receive, and we’re probably not receiving any positive cues either.

Both nervous systems are likely saying, “Look out!”

Step 2: Consider the limbic brain

Since one of the brain’s basic functions is to keep us safe, when it gets messages that we’re not safe, that is something the brain will focus on and will activate parts of the limbic brain to get us to react – essentially our fight/flight/freeze stress response.

It’s also possible that the limbic brain is already active in response to challenges beyond your interactions with this person.

Research shows that chemicals that get released in response to stress affect our brains and our behavior.

These chemicals (e.g., cortisol), affect the functions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) which is like the CEO of the brain. It connects with many other areas of the brain and helps to control our thoughts, emotions and behavior. The PFC is also involved in decision-making and correcting error in order to shift strategies as needed.

Has the difficult person been able to shift strategies lately? Have you?

Unfortunately, we lose capacity for these important abilities under stress because the stress-related chemicals both inhibit the PFC networks and over-activate the amygdala, an area of the limbic brain associated with emotional reactivity.

Step 3: What is within your control?

The brain really wants us to take action to address the stress – to close the loop in some way.

When we feel like there’s nothing we can do about a situation or person that is causing us stress, that tends to compound the stress.

But when we’re dealing with other people, what is really in our control?

Often we waste a lot of energy stressing over people and things we can’t control. But if you clarify the answer to this question, the brain can stop ruminating about it.

This idea is summed up well in one of my favorite quotes by Dr. Viktor Frankl:

Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is the power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

As I share in my Pathways to Change program, that space Frankl talks about is awareness. By bringing awareness to the habitual reaction, we can change our response and choose a different one (even if that’s doing nothing).

We might still be frustrated or even triggered, but with awareness we can pause and, even if just for a few seconds, consider another perspective. (For more on self-regulation and tolerance, click here.)

Step 4: Choose a new perspective

From that space of awareness, you can explore other perspectives that can bring you out of the limbic brain and back to the prefrontal cortex.

You might wonder what is happening in this person’s life, or what is making them feel stressed or defensive at work.

You can try directing your attention to a positive emotion such as forgiveness, compassion or gratitude.

You can also choose to focus on a strength or value that you have. Paying attention to these can help us face and recover from stress.

When you focus on the strength or value, notice how that feels, and consider from that perspective, what you might want to choose with respect to this person?

Step 5: Make a plan

Finally, given all this information, your brain is in a better position to make a new choice or action plan. With a new choice or action, your brain will have gotten out of the old pattern, and found a new solution to the stress.

That should feel good, even if it’s not perfectly executed. Or the person doesn’t seem to notice.

By going through the process, you will have created greater clarity, broken a pattern, and be in a better place to try new possibilities.

Of course nothing is fool-proof, and what the difficult person says and does remains beyond your control.

But you will benefit your PFC neural networks, and the more you practice, the stronger the neural connections and the easier the process becomes.

Meanwhile, if you’d like some personalized support around this or other leadership challenges, let’s set up a short consult.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash 


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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