How to Work With Difficult People: Four Effective Strategies to Move The Team Forward

I work with tons of people in many facets from coworkers to board volunteers to family members to coaching clients. They’re all really unique and possess qualities that can be seen as either a positive or negative depending on the eye of the beholder.

I’ve often found myself in situations working with individuals who are on the surface level appear to be basically terrible people (IMO) but have hearts full of gold. For one reason or another, we end up on the same journey working toward a common goal that makes the world a better place to live.

For me, it’s important that we not only accomplish our goal but that we remain intact at the end and learn how to better relate to each other. Calling long-term projects, a “challenge” is definitely an understatement but its necessary for growth.

Working with difficult people can often derail the goal, diminish the team’s morale and make you question your involvement in the original task.

When that happens it’s time to take a step back, breathe and implement these four strategies to move your team forward even if you aren’t the leader.

Keep an open mind and realize that people do things differently.

This may come as a shocker, but each person will have a different interpretation of the goal. Their interpretation is based on their life experiences and where they are personally and professionally. For example, think of the color pink. I’m currently thinking of “hot pink” and you’re probably thinking of another shade of pink like mauve, magenta, salmon or even flamingo pink. They’re all shades of pink but they’re all different versions of one color. Keep an open mind and respect each interpretation, but be clear on what you want to accomplish exactly. In doing so, you give your team freedom and flexibility to complete tasks however they see fit as long as they are within the stated parameters.

Recognize where people (and you) are emotionally.

Over the past two decades or so, many organizational leadership thought leadership piece has focused heavily on emotional intelligence or emotional quotient. It's simply a concept that states that our ability to manage (and recognize) our emotions can determine or likelihood of success. Inc. Magazine has a great article on the subject. Tapping into your emotional intelligence will allow you to not take things personally like feedback whether constructive or damaging. It also impacts how you relate to other and helps your responses and feedback with your team not seem retaliatory or negatively charged.

Be mindful of your own words and body language.

Think before you speak because you cannot unsay words nor cover them up by more word vomit of what you “meant to say.” This strategy may be the most difficult because often times people don’t deserve your kindness but you’re doing this for yourself—not for them. You’re doing it so that you don’t live in regret of saying something hurtful or doing something that’s out of character for you. Write down talking points and address them by bullet point. Don’t get bogged down in the details; simply mention the issue and how it impacts the end goal. Also, nonverbal cues and gestures can also tell a story. Make sure your words are gentle yet firm and your body language displays confidence as opposed to barriers that shout “BACK UP!” 

Keep sight of the vision and end goal.

Take solace in knowing that some divine intervention was at play and it resulted in your team. Nothing is happenstance, its all purposeful and we don’t know where these relationships will take us in the future. With that in mind, when you are frustrated or are nearing your breaking point, take moment to reflect on the vision and end goal. Remember why you started. Recognize the diversity in ideas and skills that are moving you forward instead of focusing on the negative outliers. Assess what’s at risk for not completing the challenge. Don’t just walk away because of an uncomfortable situation. Learn from it and use the pressure to create a diamond.

What was your most recent situation of dealing with difficult people and how did you handle it?


Ar’Sheill Monsanto