Dealing with difficult people

Theodore Roosevelt said, “The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is the knack of getting along with people.” Unfortunately he didn’t enclose the prescription for developing this knack, especially when dealing with difficult people. It’s not hard to notice individuals who fit the description “difficult,” and during your workday in a long-term care environment you see more than your fair share. What do we mean by difficult people? Think of the chatterboxes, gossipers, complainers, and know-it-alls, among others, who influence your workday. Although no “magic bullet” will work in all situations, there are a few key techniques that can alleviate the negative impact of difficult people.

Before we look at these strategies, consider this: You are only in control of your behavior, not theirs. This simple truth may be common sense, but following its meaning is not always easy. When you accept that people will not change just because you ask or tell them to, you need to figure out what actions you can take that would change how they interact with you. Also, it is better to deal with difficult people sooner rather than later. If you don’t deal with the irritating behavior, it will surely continue, and may even intensify. The longer it goes on, the angrier and more emotional you become, which makes it more difficult to turn the situation around in a positive way.

Seven Coping Strategies

Show your smile—a potent tool. Your aim is to defuse a charged situation, not escalate it. Smiling does two things: It forces you to concentrate on forming the smile, and therefore alleviates your anger, even a tiny bit, and it disarms the other person during a less than satisfactory interaction. Of course, you need to use your judgment and be aware that sometimes a smile may come across as insulting when you don’t mean it to be. In addition, humor is an effective tool to overcome difficult behaviors, provided it is not at that person’s expense.

Hold your ground and use the “I” word. Using “I feel” or “I think” puts you in control of the situation. Saying “you” instead of “I” gives the other person power, because he or she gets to define the issue. Once you say “I feel _____ when you say (or do) _____,” or “_____ doesn’t work for me,” you take control of the issue. Your conversation partner is put in the position of responding or defending his or her actions.

Reinforce desired behavior. Many studies have shown that praising desired behavior is more effective than criticizing undesired behavior. How many times have you given a staff member the same instructions because they were not carried out to your satisfaction? Find ways to compliment him or her for doing some aspect of the task well. Admittedly, this is an incremental process and it may take many tries. However, the energy you put into it will help defuse your own frustration with the person who persists in behavior that you find unacceptable.

Counteract the “chronic complainer.” Remember that the long-term care environment has no lack of unpleasant and frustrating situations. You have seen firsthand that some complaints by colleagues, staff members, and residents and their families are justified. In those cases, validate their reality by acknowledging the issues exist. If the condition can be alleviated, try to do so—preferably with the complainer’s help. However, if the issue is beyond your control, state that while the point is valid, the situation will not change at this time, and redirect the conversation. When you sense that the complainer is about to revisit the issue, turn the conversation to a completely different subject. Explain that complaining about something that can’t be fixed at that time saps energy and prevents both of you from concentrating on things that can be resolved.

Sometimes the complainer just wants to vent, and your advice or assistance isn’t expected. In those cases, listen, but set limits so you are not caught in an endless loop of negative energy. Know when to walk away.

Use—or sidestep—the “know-it-all.” Resist the temptation to roll your eyes when a colleague or resident proclaims great knowledge about the newest therapy or talks about upgrading a tried-and-true product you rely on. Consider that this person might be right, and use him or her as a resource. Or if your experience tells you otherwise, thank him or her for the input and state firmly that you disagree with it. Don’t waste time trying to convince the know-it-all why his or her position is incorrect, since you will not succeed. Above all, avoid a confrontation of egos; it will generate heat, not light.

Neutralize the “gossiper.” In the long-term care environment, continual interaction is the norm, and the focus is on the mental and physical well-being of a vulnerable population. It is all too easy to engage in discussions that overstep privacy concerns, often framed as professional matters. If a colleague or staff member shares information that you believe is gossip, don’t pass it on. Say that you personally don’t feel right discussing someone behind his or her back. Ask the gossiper, “How would you feel if you were the subject of the gossip?” Needless to say, you too could easily become the target of the next round of gossip.

Silence the “chatterbox.” Actually, the chatterbox is the least harmful type of difficult person because he or she is not your adversary. The chatterbox wants to engage you in his or her world and seems oblivious that your attention is required elsewhere. In these situations, put the blame on yourself by saying, “I’d love to hear about it but I have to finish _____.” If this is a recurrent situation (with a coworker or resident), state at the beginning of your meeting or visit, “I’m needed at _____ in _____ minutes,” or “I have to finish my quarterly report on _____ so I can submit it today.” State up front that your time is limited and then apologize and end the meeting. If you consistently act this way, you will create the expectation that your time is limited.

Lastly, habits are tough to break, and you should not expect that one or two positive interactions will produce the desired effect. Change is slow, incremental, and requires patience on your part. One final thought: Is it possible that the “difficult” person one of your colleagues is struggling with could be…you?

Yael Sara Zofi is the Founder and CEO of AIM Strategies® (Applied Innovative Management®), a New York City–based consulting firm focused on bringing applied behavioral science techniques to managing businesses in healthcare and other fields. Before establishing AIM Strategies® in 1998, she was the Vice-President of Performance Management, Leadership, and Organizational Development for JPMorgan. As a Professor at New York University, she designed and taught the courses “Leadership and Business Transformation,” “Leadership and Management Skills,” and “Management Principles and Ethical Practices.” Susan Meltzer has worked in the HR field for more than 25 years. She specializes in recruitment, training, and employee relations. For further information, visit

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