Is that person difficult … or just different?

Who hasn’t dealt with a difficult person in the workplace? As carefully as we try to navigate through the land mines of dealing with a difficult co-worker, direct report, or even manager, more often than not our successes seem only occasional and temporary. No sooner is one difficulty handled than we find ourselves facing another one with the same person. What is it with these difficult people, anyway?

Ironically, when we describe others as “difficult” it is usually the case that they use exactly the same label to describe us. There are two sides to every story. Typically, finger pointing goes both ways as people get trapped into a predictable pattern – each individual blaming the other “difficult” person and waiting for him or her to change. In the meantime, relationships sour, teamwork suffers, and productivity declines. Problems fester and escalate. Difficulties that may have seemed manageable in the beginning spiral out of control to the point where no solution seems possible. No wonder people say that they feel stuck and unsure how to deal with difficult people. And no wonder there are so many articles, books, and training offering up solutions on this very topic.

But what if the basic problem is how we define the problem in the first place? What if the underlying issue is not so much that people are difficult, but that they are different? Can taking a different perspective help us break the pattern and resolve these conflicts?

When we label others as difficult, we are applying a conclusion and judgment to behaviors that don’t work for us. Further, we often impute bad motives to others. Not only do they cause problems, but we are confident they don’t care that they are doing so. In some cases, we believe that they WANT to be difficult or even ENJOY it! Usually, this is not the case (though there are admittedly exceptions, especially once a working relationship has turned toxic). Even the most difficult people have their own good reasons for what they are doing. So if it is not true that others intend to be difficult, then what is going on?

Often, what we label as “difficult” is more accurately an approach that is “different” than what we prefer or different than the approach we use ourselves. It is well known that people have diverse communication, behavior, and work styles. We are not all cut from the same cloth. When we come to view different approaches as difficult individuals, we set our own trap. Almost never does it pay to start out thinking of others as difficult (though sometimes we do wind up there).

TIP FOR SUCCESS: Be more effective by exploring differences in approaches and how to bridge these rather than assuming that others are intentionally difficult. Start with the premise – the challenges faced are the result of differences – that offers the most likelihood of achieving success in working with “difficult” people.


Dee Oviatt | GPHR
ATW Training Solutions
11140 Aurora Avenue
Urbandale, Iowa 50322