Improve Your Workplace Communication: Dealing with Difficult People at Work

April 1, 2014

how to communicate with difficult people

Office communication can be hard when you have one or more difficult people in the mix. Improve your workplace communication skills with these tips for handling difficult people.

We all come across difficult personalities in the workplace. But when a bully or know-it-all pushes our emotional buttons, there are other ways to respond than to cower or turn angry in terms of how to communicate with them .

In The Ecstasy of Surrender, I show that the first step in getting a difficult person to cooperate is to learn how to let go of your need to be in control so you can be less rigid and oppositional, more fluid and intuitive. Your ability to go with the flow is really essential when dealing with difficult people.

Here are strategies to help you learn how to communicate with five difficult workplace types.


When anger addicts accuse, attack, humiliate, and criticize, let go of your reactivity. Pause before you speak. Count to 10 while taking a few short breaths. As they verbally assault you, imagine you’re invisible and their words are going right through you. You can disarm a rageaholic by acknowledging their position and then politely saying you have a slightly different approach you’d like to share. Ask for a small, easy-to-accomplish change that can meet your need. Then clarify how it will benefit the relationship. Finally, stand in the angry person’s shoes. Try to empathize with the pain or inadequacy they feel that’s making them so angry.

Passive-Aggressive People

Passive-aggressive people smile or show exaggerated concern on their face, but are angry under the surface. Through clenched teeth, they always maintain their cool. Trust your gut feeling that their behavior is disingenuous and hurtful. Say to yourself, “I deserve better treatment and more respect.” If the person is someone you can talk to directly, go ahead and address the behavior specifically and directly. For instance, you might say, “I’d appreciate it if you’d arrive at our meeting on time. My time is very valuable, as is yours.” If the person doesn’t change, you can decide whether to accept their behavior or not.


Egomaniacs have an exaggerated sense of entitlement and self-importance, crave attention, and require constant praise. Although they can sometimes be quite charming, they nevertheless know how to belittle you and make you serve them. Start by letting go of the belief that you can win them over with loyalty and love. Narcissistic people value control and power over love, and they lack empathy. Next, don’t allow your self-worth to hinge on them. Instead, seek out supportive coworkers and colleagues. And finally, to get their cooperation, frame your request in ways they can hear, such as showing them how your request will benefit them. Ego stroking and flattery are also effective with this type.

Guilt Trippers

Guilt trippers are blamers, martyrs, and drama queens who know how to make you feel terrible about something by pressing your insecurity buttons. Start by letting go of the notion that you have to be perfect. After all, who doesn’t make mistakes? If the guilt tripper scolds you, you can shut them down simply by apologizing or taking responsibility. If you need to cry, do it out of their sight. Tears wash away stress and will help you heal. Be aware of your guilt buttons so you’ll be stronger and better prepared when this difficult coworker tries to push that particular button. Finally, set limits with this type. Tell them you can see their point of view, but that it hurts your feelings when they harp on that subject, and you’d be grateful if they stopped saying it and learned how to communicate it properly.


Gossips and busybodies love to talk about others behind their backs, put them down, and spread harmful rumors. They also delight in drawing others into their toxic conversations. Start by letting go of your need to be liked or please everyone or control what they say. Then be direct. Say, “Your comments are hurtful. How would you like people talking about you like that?” You can also simply change the subject and refuse to participate. Don’t share intimate information with gossip mongers. And finally, don’t take gossip personally. Realize that gossips aren’t happy or secure. Do what you can to rise to a higher place, and ignore them.

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About The Author

Judith Orloff MD is author of The Ecstasy of Surrender: 12 Surprising Ways Letting Go Can Empower Your Life (April 1, 2014), upon which this article is based. An Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and New York Times bestselling author, Dr. Orloff teaches workshops nationwide, has given a TED talk on this book, and has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, Today, PBS, CNN, NPR, and many others.

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    […] Improve your office communication. This post has tips for communicating effectively at work: Includes strategies to help you deal with difficult people.  […]

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