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How To Deal With Difficult People

Dealing With Difficult People
mIon Chiosea/123rf

Whiners, Know-It-Alls, and Steamrollers: Strategies to cope with even the most hard-to-take personalities.

by Darylen Cote


We’ve all been there. There are just some people we can’t stand! Perhaps it’s a volunteer whose complaining drives you to distraction. Or it might be the person who pushes her ideas and never lets others get a word in. People like this can make your PTO leadership experience seem endless and stressful, even blocking achievement of some of your most critical goals.

Every person has their own triggers when it comes to dealing with difficult people. Those triggers stem from your background, your perspectives, and your goals in the situation at hand. But there’s good news. There are ways to deal with even the most difficult people that can bring out both their best and yours.

The first step, described by Rick Brinkman and Rick Kirschner in their book Dealing With People You Can’t Stand, is to get to know your difficult person—to know what needs that person might be trying to fulfill that cause the problematic behavior. Successful leaders listen carefully to figure out the underlying motives.

Generally, people in any given situation are task-oriented or people-oriented. Their concerns center on one of four goals:

  • getting the task done

  • getting the task done right

  • getting along with people

  • being appreciated by people

When they perceive that their concern is threatened—the task isn’t getting done, it’s being done incorrectly, people are becoming angry in the process, or they feel unappreciated for their contributions—difficult people resort to certain knee-jerk responses. Responses range from the passive, such as withdrawal, to aggressive, such as steamrolling or exploding. The difficult person often doesn’t recognize that their behavior contributes to the very problems that they’re attempting to address.

All the know-how you need to be an effective and successful parent group leader!

10 Types of Difficult People

Brinkman and Kirschner identify 10 different behavior patterns often exhibited by people under pressure.

  • The Steamroller (or Tank): Aggressive and angry. Victims can feel paralyzed, as though they’ve been flattened.

  • The Sniper: The Sniper’s forte is sarcasm, rude remarks, and eye rolls. Victims look and feel foolish.

  • The Know-It-All: Wielding great authority and knowledge, Know-It-Alls do have lots to offer, are generally competent, and can’t stand to be contradicted or corrected. But they’ll go out of their way to correct you.

  • The Grenade: Grenades tend to explode into uncontrolled ranting that has little, if anything, to do with what has actually happened.

  • The Think-They-Know-It-All: A cocksure attitude often fools people into believing their phony “facts.”

  • The Yes Person: Someone who wants to please others so much that they never say no.

  • The Maybe Person: Procrastinating, hoping to steer clear of choices that will hurt feelings, they avoid decisions, causing plenty of frustration along the way.

  • The Blank Wall (or Nothing Person): This person offers only a blank stare, no verbal or nonverbal signals.

  • The No Person: They spread gloom, doom, and despair whenever any new ideas arise, or even when old ones are recycled. The No Person saps energy from a group in an amazingly short time.

  • The Whiner: Whiners feel helpless most of the time and become overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all. They want things to be perfect, but nothing seems to go right. Whiners want to share their misery.

Chances are you’ve had to deal with at least a few of these characters. These aren’t odd or weird people. One of them might even be you upon occasion. Everyone has the potential to be difficult given the right, or wrong, circumstances. To understand why, return to the concept of a basic orientation toward people or task. Couple that with the typical ways people respond under pressure, on a continuum from aggressive to assertive to passive. Then add in the goals people have under different circumstances.

9 steps for dealing with difficult people

“Get It Done” People

According to Brinkman and Kirschner, when the goal is to “get it done,” people with a task orientation and aggressive temperament tend to dig in and become more controlling. They are the Snipers, the Steamrollers, and the Know-It-Alls. From their point of view, the rest of us are goofing off, obtuse, or just plain taking too long. The Steamroller can run over you if you get in the way. The Sniper often uses sarcasm to embarrass and humiliate at strategic moments. The Know-It-All dominates with erudite, lengthy arguments that discredit others and wear down opponents.

“Get It Right” People

When the goal is to “get it right,” people under pressure who still have a task orientation but a more passive personality become helpless, hopeless, and/or perfectionistic. They become the Whiners, No People, and Blank Walls. When Whiners are thwarted, they begin to feel helpless and generalize to the entire world. Instead of looking for solutions, they complain endlessly that nothing is right, exacerbating the situation by annoying everyone around them. No People feel more hopeless than helpless. Like A.A. Milne’s Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, their sense of gloom carries its own cloud. Their certainty that things can never be right can pull down morale for an entire group. Blank Walls simply withdraw. They will bear no responsibility when things aren’t exactly right.

“Get Along” People

People who want to “get along” tend to focus more on the people in a situation. When they’re innately passive, they become approval-seeking Yes People, Maybe People, and sometimes Blank Walls. Yes People overcommit and underdeliver in an effort to please everyone. Their lack of follow-through can have disastrous consequences for which they don’t feel responsible because they’re just trying to be helpful. When, instead, the people they want to get along with become furious, they might offer to do even more, building their lives on what other people want and also building a deep well of resentment. Maybe People avoid conflict by avoiding any choice at all. Making a choice might upset someone, and then blame will be heaped on the person who decided. Maybe People delay choosing until the choice is made for them by someone else or by the circumstances. When Blank Walls have a people orientation, they want to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. The old saying “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all” gets carried to the ultimate extreme in this case. But Blank Walls also avoid sharing anything genuine or honest about themselves and therefore never really achieve the “getting along” goal.

“Be Appreciated” People

To be appreciated is the ultimate goal of people-focused, more aggressive folks. They include the Grenade, the Think-They-Know-It-All, and sometimes the Sniper. They share attention-seeking behaviors that never accomplish what they intend. The Grenades are aggressive; they think they get no respect or appreciation. When that feeling builds to a certain point, they have an adult temper tantrum. It’s not pretty and it certainly gets attention, but blowing up never gets them to the ultimate goal of appreciation. The Think-They-Know-It-All person knows a little bit about a lot. They are so charismatic and enthusiastic that the half-facts and exaggerations can sound plausible and persuasive. When people discover that these people really don’t know what they’re talking about, the attention they seek becomes negative. The Sniper in this case is attempting to gain attention by being playful. Many people engage in playful sniping, but we all need to be careful about how it’s received. Whether it‘s funny or painful is truly in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes this kind of sniping is passed off as teasing, which can leave scars even when it’s friendly.

Responding To Difficult People

To change the course of your interactions with these difficult people, there are some simple strategies that work well with practice and patience.

In general, when your difficult person speaks, make your goal habit number five in Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand.” Often, unless you’re dealing with the Grenade or other overt hostility, it helps if you mirror some of the nonverbal cues the person displays. Don’t overdo, as it can look like mocking if you copy every gesture. Your aim, according to Brinkman and Kirschner, is “blending.” If you adopt some of the same traits as your person, such as a facial expression or posture, you send the message that you are “with” them, on the same wave length. Blending begins to facilitate trust. Often we do this kind of thing without even noticing that it’s happening. You also need to blend vocally with the person you’re trying to understand. Volume and pace are two examples of how to blend with another person. Blending is how you begin to build rapport with people and signal that you’re really listening. The only exception is yelling.

Also, some of what the person says needs to be repeated in a technique that counselors call “reflection.” This is a way of feeding back what you’ve heard on both feeling and content levels so that a person is sure that you’ve heard them. With no interpretation and without parroting exactly, use some of their actual words to demonstrate your understanding. How much to do it depends on the person you’re dealing with. With Steamrollers, keep reflection to a minimum. With Know-It-Alls, Yes People, and Maybe People, a great deal of reflection might be useful. This is especially true on the feeling level with Yes and Maybe People.

Get to the Real Issues

Next, ask clarifying questions to help your difficult person open up and to ensure that you fully understand all they have to say. The kinds of questions you want are open-ended, those that have more than a yes-or-no answer. They begin with what, how, where, who, when, and sometimes why—without an accusatory tone. A simple “Tell me more about...” can also serve the same purpose.

The importance of this information-gathering stage can’t be overstated. It keeps you out of a reactionary mode and helps you bring all the issues to the surface. At the same time, it shows that you really care about what the person has to say. It can also begin to defuse emotions and help the person think more logically.

Finally, still in a “seek to understand” mode, summarize what you’ve heard and confirm your understanding. Don’t assume you “got it.” Ask, “Did I get it right?” If not, keep listening until the person is satisfied that you understand.

The next step in the process has to do with attitude. Search for and acknowledge that the other person’s intentions are positive. This means giving the person you’re dealing with the benefit of the doubt.

Say What You Mean

Stephen Covey’s habit number five also has a second part. Part one, “Seek first to understand...,” is followed by part two, “...then to be understood.” Once you’ve put in the time and hard work of deep listening, the goal is to speak so that you might in turn be understood. But watch your tone of voice. The old saying applies: It’s not just what you say but also how you say it.

The next step is to state your positive intentions: “I care that people at the fun run have a chance to cool off, too. I want to make it a fun and safe day.” When the Steamroller starts to interrupt again, tactfully intervene. Repeating someone’s name over and over until they stop to listen can accomplish that end. Once the person has paused, you can insert your positive intent or a clarifying question, for instance. Then speak about the situation as you honestly see it. Use “I” statements, be as specific as possible, point out the impact of the behavior, and suggest a new behavior or option.

When you have a Blank Wall, the person who chooses the ultimate passive response instead of an aggressive response, your tactics need to be a little different. First, even though you might not feel particularly relaxed, calm yourself. It won’t help to push, so plan plenty of time. Ask the open-ended questions with an expectant tone and body language. Try to lighten things up with absurd guesses about the cause of the silence. Be careful with humor, but if you can get at least a smile, it’s a beginning.

Think Before Reacting

Difficult people are really all of us. Depending on the circumstances and our own perspectives, our behaviors can slip-slide into childish, rude, or even churlish reactions. The key is to think first instead of simply reacting when we feel pressured by time or by the competing interests and needs of others.

Thoughtful responses can help people identify their real needs and break negative behavior patterns that don’t serve anyone well. If you make a habit of listening deeply, assuming best intentions, looking for common ground, and reinforcing and expecting people’s best behavior along the way, then the difficult people in your life might come to view you as a respected friend—as opposed to one of their own most difficult people.

Originally posted in 2003 and updated regularly.


# Bibi M Somwaru 2008-03-01 16:26
I am having some issues with other members of my pto. I am the secretary and i feel that the president and tresurer are speaking and making decision with other who are not the 4 main members of the pto and after they make their decision then they will inform the secreary and v.p. I have noticed that the president always says "i have an appointment" or "I have to do his" i tried to tell her that if she is speaking and she say "i have to go and meet with someone" i automatically think that only she needs to meet this person and if i asked i will feel like the thrid wheel. The next thing is that she will get things that needs to be done but she will inform me until the day of when she needs it but the treasurer and president speaks everyday and they include former member of pto and vice principal but not secretary and v.p. nor principal, they just give us the lowdown as to what "they " will be doing,just because we are not there at the school when they are there.
# Kenya Gibson 2008-08-14 09:58
This is my first year as President. I have been on the board for many years. The problem I am having is the treasurer in our group second guessing me on every thing that I implement. She did not want the president position, but then she thinks she can tell me what to do. I try to listen to her side because I don't want to be labeled as being unreasonable. This is a hard task for me. I planned a meeting in July and no one could commit to coming to the meeting. I could not have another meeting until school started because I have to take care of my family and work. Now the things that should have been discussed in the first meeting she wants to discuss now. I believe that whatever you want to discuss it must be brought before the board and voted on, not with one or two people over the phone. Help! Help! Help!
# Lani Harac, PTO Today 2008-08-20 17:07
Hi, Kenya -- it sounds like a tough situation! Our message boards are a great place to ask these kinds of questions and get ideas and suggestions -- many experienced parent group leaders participate on the boards; some of them might have faced a similar issue. You can search or post a new question at . Best of luck to you!
# Brenda Brown 2008-09-24 03:33
Kenya - I wish I could advise you but I have almost the exact same problem. I am a second year president whose treasurer thinks its her place to follow behind me and check everything I do. Sometimes she just takes it upon herself to address people and their tasks without consulting me. Further more, while she's worrying about what everyone else is doing she is not completing her own tasks. I get many complaints about her and have to address it soon. This part is so hard!!
# Kia 2008-10-29 23:14
Kenya and Brenda..I am soooo glad to see that I am not alone on this one. As a new president it is very hard to get the old board members to accept change. I to tried to meet with my group all summer, where everyone was too busy to meet. A rule that I have established is that if they are "too busy" the principal and I make the descision..period It is funny how the treasuer can over step there bounds and forget their role. I remind mine of hers. (smiles)
# Tim Sullivan from PTO Today 2008-10-30 14:40
Hi Kia -

Quick comment about your "rule". I've got to say, I really don't like it, as it's just the kind of rule that will have folks thinking you group is a clique or a fiefdom. And that kills long-term involvement.

Perhaps these folks are really busy. That's certainly the safest assumption. Are there other ways to get input (email, for example)? It's not easy and certainly can be frustrating to corral people who perhaps aren't as committed to PTOdom as you are, but that's a big part of the job. If your goal is to build involvement, you need to do all you can (even going out of your way) to get as much input (and certainly give the impression of shared decision-making) as you can.
# Lauren 2009-03-03 04:11
Last month's meeting, two parents began a shouting confrontation before the meeting started, when they were alone in the room. I walked in & began setting up hoping they'd stop arguing. But they went on, despite my hints, and direct requests. As others arrived, they began to insist that this was an issue involving the entire school, but after a few more minutes, it was clear that this was a personal issue. That's when I stood up and ended it for good.
Now I am must address this situation at the next meeting. I plan to start with a purpose of a PTO meeting (to come together as working partners for the benefit of our school and our children). I'll stress the value of communication. But I want to say that at future meetings, if personal issues are continuing after repeated requests to stop, the arguing parties will be asked to leave the meeting. Is this appropriate?
I have also pulled your article on communication and plan to pass that out as a useful tool that we can all learn from.
# Tina 2009-03-09 16:37
Not only is that appropriate but very important to let your memership know that there is a time and place and a PTO meeting is not. Our school moved to a new building and a few of us joked we needed the new bilding to get away from the "beaten horse" smell in the old building. Also, really, what a way to begin a meeting "Hello, everyone. Tonight our first order of business is the argument between Mr. Q and Mr. Y. Gentlemen, who would like to go first?" ANd then your secretary takes notes while having 911 on stand-by.

I have to agree with Tim on his advise to Kia. SO been there and survived that. Tim is correct that rumors do fly, remember teachers talk too, and once they heard that Mom talked to the Prncipal and nt the PTO board, it was not good. That Mom also lost a lot of respect by "going over heads".

Great article, wish I had that 10 years ago !
# Lee 2010-11-21 22:13
How do you deal with a new president when all the president does is pick her "certain" people on a continuous basis for things and has things discontinued without have the PTO vote on it. The president and the principle have done this on a couple of occasions
# Anonymous1 2011-10-18 13:35
Part 1 from Anonymous1- This article is AMAZING!!!!I Lately, I thought I had been losing my mind, but after reading this article I realize that it's NOT all in my head! LOL! I work with a group of women that each characteristic you described are identified. I swear you would think we were a BIG science experiment for the company we work for! (LOL) On a serious note, I've been struggling for almost 2 yrs now with how to deal/cope with working with difficult people in a work environment. At this point, I recognize that alot of times I feel helpless, hopeless, and the worst, I withdraw myself & often times I can be found with the blank stare on my face because I just want to dissociate myself from everyone and my surroundings. About 1 month ago, a co-worker & I had a loud dispute in the workplace & she called me "Stupid" the word didn't bother me it was her unprofessionalism & loudness that ignited my animosity in the situation. We were warned by our bosses, but didn't receive a write-up, this time.
# Anonymous1 2011-10-18 13:40
Part2 of Anoymous 1-We have to work closely, and we even have to travel out of town together, with 7 others in our group, and I'm very concerned that she and I may butt heads again while we are concurrently travelling. I'm very worried that our dislike and public dispute has discredited the respect and dignity I so deserve from my cohorts, as well as possibly even management! I desperately need help with how to deal with this problem. I show courtesy and respect, always, but it's not returned. I've been told by others I sought advice from that I may need to begin seeking/exploring different employers, but I've invested so much time with my current employer and I don't want to give that up for a problem I've never experienced before. I thought it was depression, but I'm not depressed, just like anyone else I don't like being mistreated. So how do I regain my co-workers respect? How do I regain my confidence? I don't want to be disliked or walked over any longer.
# Stressed out 2011-11-03 02:56
I am a first time president, but I have been helping/on the PTO Exec. Board for the last 4 years. This year the VP is new to PTO. We have clashed here and there. I feel like she is trying to take over everything. When I tell her this she turns it around to make it sound like I am just not delegating anything. However, the times this has happened I haven't had anything to delegate. Now she has informed me (Literally) that she plans on taking over next year. How do I handle this situation? It is way to early in the year for these kinds of problems. I am so stressed! I want to handle the situation appropriately, but at this point I am not sure how?
# Trying Hard 2011-12-12 21:04
I agree with Lee. We have a very similar situation at our school, and see that others have posted the same. This is exactly why people do not get involved.

You can't complain when you hand pick those that you want and then it doesn't turn out the way that you want it.

I know that all of us do what we can, and believe that it makes a huge difference!
# HR 2011-12-14 02:59
We have a PTO VP that is just annoying. She talks and talks and talks about herself and her children until no one wants to listen anymore. A lot of talking and no meat. I do think she is one that is described as perceiving herself as under-appreciated. How do we appease her and get her to stick to the point and keep it brief?
# Help 2012-02-22 01:57
The staff at my 4th graders school hates it when the PTO helps out at book fairs they don't want parents at school for field days saying its a teacher only event but want us to raise money for waters shirts ex. Today at a book fair I was told I was taking away a paying job and they were calling the union I have never felt so unwanted in my life. I still want to help my child with the money the school needs for field trips and extras like the water and shirts last year we left the school with 5000 dollars for next year. How can the PTO. Handle teachers and staff that don't want us at the school.
# Acai 2013-05-15 13:28
I hate people who try to be peacemakers and step in and mediate when one person was simply standing up for themselves to someone who needed to be stood up to.
The idiot who tries to smooth things over then undermines the assertion attempt. I hate people who do that.
# PTA mom 2013-05-15 14:17
I'm vice of PTA but nominated president for the new year.
I got along with all Members I still do but I got into an argument with president. She takes things personal and I like business. If something goes wrong she wants to skip procedures and try fixing matters on her own. But we have to follow rules!!!!
Anyways I don't talk to her much. Our friendship is gone. I don't want to be the next president. Should I step down or stick with it? I want to be a part of PTA but I don't want to deal with this.
How do I step down without looking bad and irresponsible?
# Craig Bystrynski 2013-05-15 14:34
I'd urge you to stick with it and not let this current dispute affect the future. One nice thing about being president is that you can run the group your way -- if you like to stick to procedures and feel that's the most effective way to do things, then you can run the group that way as president. Just because the current president seems to have her own personal style, that doesn't mean you have to follow it when you take over.

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