How to Deal with Difficult People

Dealing With Difficult People

We’ve all run into them. People who rarely speak up. Or talk too much. Or deliberately say things to start an argument. Or clearly are not saying what they really think. Or who seem to agree with you to your face, then complain and stab you in the back.

It seems every time I present recently, I get a question about how to deal with the person who won’t stop talking. Their talk is inevitably about #1. I call this person the “Me-me-me’er.”  Me-me-mew’ers are everywhere. Most are either oblivious of their behavior and it’s impact, or they just don’t care. All they can think about is themselves, a topic that is endlessly fascinating to them, typically rather boring to everyone else.

So many conversational problems can best be dealt with by more effective listening, but the me-me-me’er is not one of them. The goal, of course, is to create a genuine two-way conversation, give and take, exploration, connection, fun exchange with a sense of parity. But good listening usually encourages me-me-me’ers to reload and resume, talking faster and louder, just what you don’t want them to do. You can try barging in, speaking forcefully, or telling a story, but these standard responses also fail more frequently than they work.

Typical Responses to this Type of Difficult Person

A second approach is to try polite attempts to insert yourself into the conversation, starting with low level confrontations and working your way up the ladder. For example, start with, “That’s interesting. I had a similar/different experience …” And if that doesn’t work, try something louder, or a little more forceful, such as, “I’d like to respond …”  And if that doesn’t work, well, try “It must be my turn to talk now.”  If one of these works, great, but often, unfortunately, they don’t.  These responses become a shot, often an escalation, in a verbal battle. Better to change the rules of play.

How do you do that?

Changing the Rules of the Game

My favorite way to respond is to switch the game from verbal to non-verbal. There are many ways to do this.

A low-level way is to look away, shuffle about, show some disinterest in the conversation. This may work, because the me-me-me’er, more than anything, wants an audience. A slightly higher level of intervention, and frankly my favorite, is to raise my hand, high in the air, and keep it there until I’m called on, just like in school. It’s pretty hard NOT to recognize someone with their hand up. It’s a rather endearing gesture and almost guaranteed to change the dynamic.

An alternate move is to make the time-out signal with both hands, but I find this less effective. Another kind of non-verbal move is to touch the me-me-me’er gently, appropriately on the arm to get their attention. And the ultimate non-verbal move is to walk away. Remember you are not obligated to listen or attend to the endless me-me-me’er. You can be respecftul and assertive, “I’m sorry, but I need to move on now.” (or some variation of this short exit announcement.)

Explore Further

You can read about these and other types of difficult behaviors and how to respond, in my recently published book, http://Mindful Conversation: Speak Openly, Connect Deeply, Live Joyously

Another great resource is Difficult Conversations by Doug Stone and Sheila Heen,

What kind of difficult behaviors are you encoutering? What have you tried? I’d love to hear from you.

Speak Out! Listen In!