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March 16, 2022

The 10 Most Difficult People (and the 5 Best Ways to Deal With Them!)

Jonathan Hancock

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Difficult People Everywhere

"There are many types of annoying people," says teamwork consultant Ilene Marcus in our latest Expert Voices episode. And she's right, isn't she? If we're honest, we all know a large cast of characters who, in their own ways, rub us up completely the wrong way.

Whether they mean to do it or not, they're the people who aggravate, antagonize, fluster, and frustrate us – to the point that we can still feel our skin prickle with annoyance at the mere thought of them, decades down the line.

See how many of the following figures you recognize. They all make an appearance in our "Dealing With Difficult People" podcast, and I've met them all at some point during my career. Have you?

10 Types of Difficult People

1. The Know-it-All. This is someone who feels sure that they know more than you, everyone else on the team – and likely every other team, for that matter. As author and CEO Dana Borowka says, they have a "low tolerance for correction." They obstruct collaboration, and let others take the blame for mistakes.

2. The Interrupter. This character doesn't let you get a word in edgeways – either because they're not listening, or listening intently so that they can seize their second to jump in. They stop you contributing fully, and can even halt your train of thought in its tracks.

3. The Ignorer. For Professor Gretchen Spreitzer, this person's behavior typically involves "… ignoring somebody who's trying to clarify a point that they're making, or ignoring somebody in a hallway conversation." They choose carefully who they communicate with, and they make others feel irrelevant – or invisible.

4. The Bore. It's not just that the Bore doesn't offer anything interesting. They actively ignore people's signals that they're too busy, not interested, or have heard it all before.

5. The Prima Donna. Everything's about them: their ideas, their needs, their successes. In the words of Ilene Marcus, they're "… people that perform very well, but get on your last nerve – and take away from you driving the business agenda."

6. The Work Martyr. This is the person who never stops working (or telling you about it). Nothing you do ever comes close to the amount of time and energy they've put in. They grab every role and responsibility going – and expect you to be grateful.

7. The Whiner. The Whiner has what Dana Borowka calls "woe-is-me syndrome." "The world is so unfair! And they are just constantly complaining."

8. The Negativity Spreader. This is someone who's not content with just having negative feelings. They want to pass them on to everyone else. They steer every conversation toward the reasons why something won't work – and why you might as well give up now.

9. The Rainmaker. As Ilene Marcus says, "culture bends” for a Rainmaker. "They don't always adhere to team norms, but because they're the superstar everyone has to deal with the way they do their work."

10. The Boundary Crosser. This person invades your space, physically and emotionally. Whether they're reaching over your desk, borrowing your belongings without asking, or telling you more about their personal life than you're comfortable knowing, they breach your boundaries in annoying and unsettling ways.

Lessons From Expert Voices

In each Mind Tools Expert Voices podcast, my colleague Rachel Salaman tackles a particular workplace topic with the help of handpicked expert guests. Episode 9 explores the many ways that people can be difficult, and the best ways to respond.

In this snippet from the latest Expert Voices, our guests explain how to recognize difficult behavior and understand the impact it can have – in order to start dealing with it.

Dealing With Difficult People

Harvard-trained psychotherapist Katherine Crowley describes difficult people as "emotional traps." She says that their behavior "... stirs you up emotionally and causes turmoil in your day."

So what can we do about them?

Here are five strategies offered by Rachel's experts:

1. Recognize your feelings.

Several guests explore what's going on in our brains when someone annoys us.

Best-selling business writer Christine Comaford says it's about how we interpret their behavior. "You see things, you hear things, you smell things, you taste things, you feel things," she says. All of that information "… zooms into your brain stem, into your reptilian brain, then moves very quickly to your mammalian brain where emotions are attached, and then zooms to your prefrontal cortex where we make meaning."

Her first step to dealing with the subsequent feelings is simply to recognize them. "If we don't know how we're feeling – frustrated, overwhelmed, happy, peaceful, confident – then we can't navigate our emotions."

2. Tell them what's happening.

Next, we can open up a conversation. As Gretchen Spreitzer explains, "That doesn't have to be in a public way, but in a side conversation. 'You know, in the meeting we had today, I felt like you weren't hearing the point that I was trying to make, and in fact I felt like there were several times where I was interrupted,' as an example."

If we don't tell people what they're doing, how can we expect them to change?

3. Be curious.

We might also need to change our take on the situation. Christine Comaford recommends being curious: "… about the feelings that start to come up, based on the sensory data that you receive."

Maybe there are mitigating circumstances for someone's difficult behavior. Perhaps the cause is something that we're doing. And what if the intent we imagine simply isn't there, so there's no need for us to feel so annoyed?

4. Project positivity.

"One of the most effective things you can do," says leadership expert Olivia Fox Cabane, "is give them credit for the solution that you're going to be proposing." 

Author Rick Brinkman calls this "Pygmalion power." He believes that it can reduce your annoyance, and help to promote positive behavior in others. "Let's say somebody is being negative and we say to them, 'I appreciate you pointing out the problem so we can come up with the solutions,' that's projecting positive on them. You’re assuming they’re coming from the positive intention of wanting to improve things."

5. See the benefits.

"There's a benefit to a complainer," according to Dana Borowka. "They will identify issues that may be overlooked by people who always have that positive side."

And if people around you are whining or spreading negativity, perhaps it's a signal to get to know each other better, or to generate better energy within the team. As Gretchen Spreitzer says, "If we're having more fun in the workplace, we might be developing more trust, we might be getting to know the whole person at work in a way that then minimizes 'uncivil' behavior in the future."

Expect the Best From Problem People

We can take a great deal of hope from the way our experts deal with difficult people. Rick Brinkman sums up much of that in one sentence: "People will fall all over themselves to fulfill your positive expectations of them."

"It's not that you have to really get to know or love everybody else in the organization," says Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School. "But you do need to understand a few simple things. Specifically, what are they trying to get done? What obstacles do they see ahead, and what skills and resources do they bring?"

We might even enjoy our interactions with them a bit more. Amy offers a quote that I'm going to try to remember the next time I'm with someone who usually gets my goat. It's from Abraham Lincoln, who said: "I don't like that man very much. I must get to know him better."

Listen to the Latest Episode of Mind Tools Expert Voices

Mind Tools Club Members and Corporate Licensees can listen to the full Expert Voices podcast now.

If you're not a Mind Tools member, you can join the Mind Tools Club and gain access to our 2,400+ resources, including a range of audio features. For corporate licensing, ask for a demo with one of our team.

What are your best strategies for dealing with people who frustrate, annoy and aggravate you at work? Who needs to change: them, you or both? And have you ever turned a tricky relationship around – with positive results for everyone? Please share your thoughts, below.

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