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Dealing with Difficult People

Updated on January 29, 2013
Trust me.
Trust me.
I mean you no harm.
I mean you no harm.

Strategies and Language to Use for Dealing with Difficult People - the Bellowing Bull and the Sly Sneaky Snake

What do you think? Can you make difficult people change? Probably not. The motivation to change comes from within. People have to be willing to change themselves. What you can do is use proven coping skills and strategies to change the way you react to difficult people. Whether they decide to change is their decision. How you react to them is yours.

First we need to examine – why are difficult people difficult in the first place? Almost any competent psychologist can tell you the answer. Because they get a payoff when they are being difficult. It’s a simple psychological fact – actions that are rewarded are the actions that are repeated.

If my difficult behavior makes you upset, and getting you upset is my reinforcement, my reward, then you can be sure I will continue to be a difficult person.

So, how would you deal with me? Well, when dealing with difficult people you always have four choices:

1. You can do nothing. You can suffer in silence or complain to other people who can do nothing.

2. You can walk away. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You are nobody’s victim without your permission.”


3. You can change your attitude about the difficult person. You can learn to see them differently and listen to them differently, and then . . .

4. . . . you can change your behavior when you deal with them. When you change the way you deal with them, then they have to learn new ways to deal with you.

I have identified ten different categories of difficult people – they may be male or female. To make them easy to remember, I have compared them to animals. My apologies to the animals. In order to change your behavior when dealing with these difficult people. here are proven strategies and coping skills as well as the appropriate language you may use


I'm abusive, arrogant and mean. Putting you down is my favorite scene.
I'm abusive, arrogant and mean. Putting you down is my favorite scene.

The Bellowing Bull.

You know you are dealing with a bellowing bull when you hear language typically like this:

"You're a complete idiot, a moron, a genuine incompetent. You must be a genetic mistake. You have been working on this project for weeks and it's still not finished. I refuse to listen to any more excuses. You are . . . “ (yada, yada, yada)

Bulls are so insensitive to others they may use insults like - in the words of Rodney Dangerfield - "You're so ugly I'll bet when you were born, the doctor slapped your mother." The bull's attitude, if not physical behavior, expresses attack.

They are aggressive, abusive, adamant, angry, arbitrary, argumentative and arrogant. They are hostile, intimidating, inflexible, overwhelming, confrontational and critical. They don't just attack what you are doing or what you have done. They attack you.

What is their motivation for this type of behavior? Bellowing Bulls have a strong need to prove to themselves that their view of the world is always right. They have a strong sense of what others should do. They value aggressiveness and confidence and expect others to run from them - and devalue others when they do. By demeaning other people, they create a sense of self-importance and superiority.

How should you deal with this difficult person? Strategies and language to use:

• Stand up for yourself and say something without being aggressive. "Wait a minute, I'm not sure you heard what I meant."

• Give them time to run down. Look directly at them and wait. Do not react – this may be hard to do at first. When they lose momentum, jump in. Don't worry about being polite, just jump in. Get into the conversation any way that you can.

• You may have to interrupt and cut them off. If you are cut off, say, "You interrupted me." Say it again if you have to, and start talking.

• Get their attention. Call their name loudly. "Mr. Tyrant, Mr. Tyrant." They have to recognize that you won't respond like everyone else -by running or raging.

• If you are sitting, slowly, deliberately stand up or drop some papers.

• Get them to sit down. Most people are less aggressive when seated. Say, "Look, if we are going to discuss this, we may as well be comfortable."

• If the Bull doesn't sit, remain standing yourself.

Express your point of view using eye contact. Use language that does not express a direct attack. You are simply expressing your views. "I guess I feel differently about ..." or "My experience has shown ..."

Avoid a head-on confrontation. Don't try to argue. If you fight, you may lose. Bulls are good at fighting. Be ready to be friendly. When they can't overwhelm you, they may see you as worthy of respect and make friendly overtures.

Caution: If your supervisor or boss is a Bellowing Bull, you could win the battle but lose the war.

Sarcastic remarks I often make.  Whatcha expect? I am a snake!
Sarcastic remarks I often make. Whatcha expect? I am a snake!

The Sly Sneaky Snake

Sly Sneaky Snakes, like Bellowing Bulls, are insensitive to the feelings of others. They thrive on making rude verbal comments or a non-verbal roll of the eyes to make you look foolish. They don't attack you head-on like the Bull but take pot-shots at you with snide sarcasm and innuendo. They are skilled at using non-verbal whispers, knowing smiles, and eye-looks that say, "Pretend you don't even hear me."

What is their motivation for this behavior? Sly Sneaky Snakes have a strong need to get their own way. If they can make you look ridiculous, they can still feel in control without being over-whelmed themselves. They also believe it may not be practical or politically safe to risk an overt battle when there is another less dangerous way - covert sniping and sarcastic language.

How should you deal with this difficult person? Strategies and language to use:

• Smoke them out. Say something like, "What did you mean by that?" or "That definitely sounds like a negative reaction - is it?" You must say something so the sniping doesn't continue to occur without your response.

• Give the Snakes alternatives but question, do not assert. "Do you have another solution?" They may respond, "Who, me? No, I agree with you." Questioning gives them an alternative to sniping.

• Get other points of view. In a group, it is wise to ask, "Do you all see it that way?"

• Do not tell the Snake, "See you're wrong." Instead, ask, "Can you be more specific?" Snakes will usually back down and slither away. They don't want to risk confrontation.

• Try to solve the problems that may be uncovered. You can often prevent sniping by holding regular team meetings for the discussion of issues as they arise, and work out potential solutions together.

You may not be able to control the behavior of difficult people like the Bellowing Bull and the Sly Sneaky Snake, but you can control your reactions to them.

"God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it's me." – Unknown

Read my hubs on the eight remaining types of difficult persons: the Grenade Gorilla, Genuine Know-It-Owl, Bogus Know-It-Owl, Complaining Crocodile, Pleasant Puppy, Calamity Chicken Little, Uncommunicative Clam, and Compromising Chameleon. See links above.

You may also enjoy my Hub: Take the PIG Personality Test and four Hubs on Dumb Crazy Laws.


© Copyright BJ Rakow 2010, 2011. All rights reserved. Author, Much of What You Know about Job Search Just Ain't So. Readers say they learned to write a dynamic resume and cover letter, network effectively, interview professionally, and negotiate assertively. Includes a must-read chapter for older workers.


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