How To Deal with Difficult People at Work: Top Tips

Kristin Sullivan
April 4, 2024
Three coworkers are in an office and a woman is holding up a sign indicating she needs help on how to deal with difficult people at work.

It's a universal truth that difficult people are part and parcel of professional life. Recognizing the importance of knowing how to deal with difficult people at work is the key to maintaining a healthy work environment. Knowing how to effectively manage conflict and differences of opinion with challenging people will promote understanding, cooperation, and positive outcomes. While every relationship and conflict is unique, there are common strategies that can help you navigate the complexities of challenging people in the workplace. Read along as I share my top tips for dealing with difficult individuals and conflicts at work.

The Role of Diplomacy

As a consultant with many years of experience, I've learned that mastering the art of diplomacy is paramount in fostering professional relationships and dealing with professional conflicts. Diplomacy is a cornerstone skill in conflict resolution, especially when dealing with challenging personalities. It involves the strategic and diplomatic handling of interpersonal relationships and disputes. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, here are four key steps that are often crucial in diplomatic efforts:

  1. Communication and Dialogue:
    • Establish open and transparent communication channels.
    • Foster a culture of dialogue to understand the perspectives and concerns of all parties involved.
    • Use effective diplomatic language to avoid misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
  2. Negotiation and Compromise:
    • Identify common interests and areas of agreement.
    • Seek mutually beneficial solutions through negotiation and compromise.
    • Be willing to make concessions while maintaining the core objectives and values.
  3. Building Trust and Relationships:
    • Invest in building trust between parties through consistent and reliable actions.
    • Cultivate personal relationships among diplomats and leaders to create a foundation for cooperation.
    • Demonstrate commitment to agreements and follow through on commitments.
  4. Cultural Sensitivity and Understanding:
    • Recognize and respect cultural differences to avoid cultural misunderstandings.
    • Adapt diplomatic strategies to the cultural context of the parties involved.
    • Foster cultural exchanges and people-to-people connections to enhance understanding.

Build Rapport

Building rapport is essential to creating and maintaining good working relationships with all colleagues, not just difficult people. Finding common ground and establishing a personal connection goes a long way toward avoiding challenging situations with difficult people. A positive and friendly rapport contributes to a more pleasant work atmosphere. This positive tone can, in turn, influence the behavior of difficult individuals and create an environment where they are more likely to cooperate. Whether it's shared interests, experiences, or values, finding commonalities can strengthen the relationship and help when conflicts arise. If your team is virtual, a bit of extra effort is needed to build rapport.

Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries with difficult people is critical in maintaining a healthy and productive environment. When dealing with a challenging individual, use assertive communication. Clearly and confidently express your thoughts without being aggressive or confrontational. Politely but firmly enforce your boundaries if someone is crossing them. Lead by example and encourage a workplace culture of respect and professionalism. When colleagues see others respecting boundaries, it sets a positive tone for the entire organization.

Document Everything

Comprehensive documentation is your ally. Clearly outline all project details, agreements, and communications in writing. If project deliverables and agreements are clearly communicated early and often, there is much less likelihood of issues popping up. When critical decisions are being made on a video call, recording the meeting is an excellent idea. In addition to recording calls, take concise meeting notes and publish the recap soon after the meeting has ended. This documentation serves as a reference point in case of disputes and can help protect both parties' interests.

Offer Solutions, Not Problems

A woman holding up a sign with a lightbulb indicating she is offering solutions not problems.

When disagreements arise, don't just present the issues—propose solutions. Demonstrating your commitment to problem-solving and providing actionable steps can instill confidence. Collaboratively work towards resolving conflicts rather than dwelling on who is at fault. This approach encourages a more positive and constructive conversation. There is always a solution to every problem. Be creative when offering solutions.

Resolving Conflict

Three people in an office that are in conflict.

Conflicts at work are practically unavoidable, especially when dealing with challenging individuals. However, the key lies in implementing effective strategies to manage and resolve these conflicts constructively. One valuable approach is to contextualize the problem, recognizing that many work-related conflicts may initially appear more severe than they truly are. Put the issue in perspective and maintain a composed demeanor.

In conflict, individuals often employ five common styles: avoidance, competition, compromise, accommodation, and collaboration. Familiarizing yourself with these styles will help you address disputes efficiently. Every conflict is unique, and choosing the appropriate resolution strategy depends on the circumstances. Adapting your approach to different people and situations enables a more effective and tailored resolution process.

Conflict Styles

  1. Competing (or forcing):
    • Description: This style involves pursuing one's own concerns at the expense of others. It's assertive and uncooperative.
    • Use when: Quick decision-making is needed, in emergencies, or when unpopular actions are necessary.
  2. Collaborating:
    • Description: This style seeks to find a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of all parties involved. It's both assertive and cooperative.
    • Use when: You want to build long-term relationships, when the issues are complex and require multiple perspectives, or when a high level of commitment from all parties is necessary.
  3. Compromising:
    • Description: This style involves finding a middle ground where each party gives up something to reach an agreement. It's moderately assertive and moderately cooperative.
    • Use when: Parties have equal power, time is limited, and achieving a quick solution is important.
  4. Avoiding:
    • Description: This style involves sidestepping or postponing the conflict. It's unassertive and uncooperative.
    • Use when: The issue is trivial, there's no chance of winning, when time is needed to gather information, or when emotions need to cool down.
  5. Accommodating:
    • Description: This style involves giving in to the concerns of others while neglecting one's own needs. It's unassertive and cooperative.
    • Use when: Maintaining harmony is more important than achieving personal goals, when you realize you are wrong, or when preserving relationships is a priority.

De-Escalation Tactics

De-escalation tactics serve as a framework for handling situations where conflicts escalate into heightened tension. When conflicts become heated, employing de-escalation tactics is essential. The following strategies can provide a structured approach to navigating conflicts, fostering an environment conducive to positive outcomes and mutual understanding. When attempting to de-escalate, it's essential to:

A calm image of rocks and the ocean in the backdrop.
  • Stay Calm and Professional:
    • Maintain a calm and composed demeanor.
    • Avoid responding emotionally or defensively.
    • Keep your tone and body language neutral.
  • Clarify and Validate:
    • Clarify any misunderstandings and ensure you have a clear understanding of the issue.
    • Validate the other person's feelings and concerns, even if you don't necessarily agree.
  • Actively Listen:
    • Demonstrate genuine interest in what the person is saying.
    • Paraphrase and reflect on their statements to show understanding.
    • Avoid interrupting and allow them to express their thoughts fully.
  • Apologize if Necessary:
    • If there was a mistake on your part or a misunderstanding, offer a sincere apology.
    • Apologizing doesn't always mean admitting fault; it can express regret for the inconvenience.


Dealing with difficult people in the workplace is undoubtedly challenging but manageable with the right strategies. Resolving conflicts is integral to meeting organizational goals. I hope these tips help you improve your professional relationships and manage conflict better with challenging individuals.

Kristin is a seasoned software professional, with over 26 years of invaluable experience in the software industry. Her multifaceted career includes a wealth of hands-on experience across various cross-functional roles, including business analysis, product management, project management, and product training. Kristin has a proven record of accomplishment in project and team management on highly complex enterprise projects. Her extensive industry knowledge spans financial services, banking, non-government organizations (NGO's), and manufacturing.
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