Where are all the difficult people?

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Written by Michael Fleming on 11 December 2018 in Opinion

Ever wondered if the difficult person is you? Michael Fleming says we need to take stock once in a while.

Reading time: 3 minutes.

Everybody knows some 'difficult' people. I know this because at some point during pretty much every training programme I’ve delivered to literally tens of thousands of people over the past 12 years I am asked about a problem that relates to these difficult people.

The same problem is presented to me regularly during one to one sessions with senior execs. The question usually goes something like this: 

'Michael, can you help me with something please – I’ve got this really difficult [boss, manager, colleague, partner, director, client, customer, prospect]; they keep [insert a range of 'difficult' behaviours/communication traits]; how should I best [respond, reply, handle their behaviour etc]?'


I’m sure you recognise this. You’ve already filled in the blanks, haven’t you? You’ve inserted the names and behaviours of your own bosses/managers/clients/prospects – haven’t you?

Inherent in these questions is the assumption that it’s the other person who is being difficult. I never actually seem to meet any of the 'difficult' people. They don’t seem to come to training sessions or get any coaching. Hmm. That’s strange isn’t it?

Why I wonder is it that no-one ever asks me:

'Michael, can you help me with something please – I’ve got this tendency to be a really difficult person; when I deal with some of my [colleagues, managers, clients, prospects etc] I tend to [insert a range of 'difficult' behaviours/communication traits]; how should I best modify/improve that?'

I never actually seem to meet any of the 'difficult' people. They don’t seem to come to training sessions or get any coaching. Hmm. That’s strange isn’t it?

So, what’s going on here? Either the difficult people never do come to any training or coaching sessions ever. Or...there is a self-awareness issue.   

The starting point for effective personal development is self-awareness. If you simply aren’t aware or at least prepared to consider, just perhaps, that YOUR behaviours or communication style might be causing the problem; that these other 'difficult' people you keep encountering might in fact perceive YOU as the difficult one. 

And what’s more - they might actually be right about that, then how on earth are you ever going to improve and develop?

Perhaps you don’t communicate with your team in the way they might reasonably expect. Do you ever praise them? Do they think you are displeased with them? Are you a constructive manager, or do you always see the negative side of another’s performance?

With customers, do you think you give them sufficient respect? Might they feel a little taken for granted after all the time you‘ve worked with them? Do they appreciate your efforts, or do you think they are being 'difficult' when they fail to acknowledge the effort you have put in?

Or, are they, unhappy, in fact, with your performance but too reticent to tell you?

And with your boss, does she think you are 'difficult' because you don’t look her in the eye or find it hard to respond to constructive criticism? Are there behaviours you could adopt to make your relationship with her more enjoyable?


So next time you feel tempted to ask the question about how to handle that other 'difficult' person, how about first taking some time to pause, reflect, and try to see things from their perspective? Why not ask an impartial, independent person how they see it? Why not ask someone to role-play the interaction with you – and you take on the role of the difficult person and see how it feels? 

As the Bard, Rabbie Burns, put it so beautifully: “Oh wad some Power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as ithers see us”. 


About the author

Michael Fleming LLB Dip LP is training director and head of KWC Legal.


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