How to Deal with Difficult People

Tips to deal with the tattletale, the curmudgeon, the know-it-all, and the whiner.

Lisa B. Marshall
6-minute read
Episode #101

Unfortunately we all know a few tattletales, curmudgeons, know-it-alls, and whiners. These negative people are sometimes the people we work and live with. Today: quick and dirty tips to deal with these difficult people. It’s part 3 of our series on how to deal with criticism.

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How to Deal with Difficult People

Beth Beutler and I agreed that Terri Tattletale, Cristopher Curmudgeon, Ned Know-It-All, and Wendy Whiner were some of the most difficult people to deal with. So in this final installment of the How to Handle Criticism series we thought we’d share specific and practical tips for dealing with these chronically negative people.

How to Deal with a  Tattletale

Terri Tattletale is the self-appointed police of the workplace.  She spends most of her time talking about mistakes made by co-workers. Unfortunately, she’s more likely to tell others rather than go directly to the person because she enjoys stirring up intrigue, controversy, and dissension.

One response to her tattling about someone else is to ask, “Have you spoken directly to Sue about this?” Chances are she will say “no.” You then have an opportunity to say, “Well then, let’s go together to talk to her.” At this point, the tattletale will probably find an excuse to depart the conversation, or make a mental note not to tattle to you again. In a rare case, she may care enough to agree with your suggestion. Any of these results will work.

If you have the starring role in the stories of the tattletale, that can cause an enormous amount of stress. Keep in mind that your conversations and mistakes are the tattletale’s ammunition. The best thing to do is to limit your interactions with her to essential and professional conversations and to keep them as brief as possible (and of course, never pass along problems or personal information about other people). If for some reason your boss asks you to explain something the tattletale told her, you can simply say you don’t remember it happening that way. Then you should explain from your perspective.  

How to Deal with a Curmudgeon

Cristopher Curmudgeon is bad-tempered and cranky most of the time. He may have had circumstance in his life that causes him to behave this way, and he may just be pre-disposed to being impatient, rude, and unhappy.

Like the tattletale, try to limit your interactions with this person, or if possible, just overlook his cranky attitude. (I often will say to myself, “He must be having a really bad day.”) Another approach, if it’s appropriate, is to try to lighten the situation with humor, “Wow, I’m glad you weren’t one of the reviewers…”

The bottom line is that you can’t change the other person. So, if a curmudgeon attacks you, the best way to respond is to let him have his say and assume his crankiness has nothing to do with you. The key is not to emotionally react, but instead calmly respond. A good way to respond is to paraphrase what you just heard using neutral language, “It sounds like you disagree with my method of approach because…” Many times the curmudgeon simply wants to be heard, and your paraphrased response might be enough to diffuse the situation.

If not, ideally the next step is to find something you can agree on. “It seems we both agree that the goal is ….” You’ll then need to decide whether or not you want to follow that statement with your own point of view. If you are in front of others, you’ll likely want to respond by clarifying your position directly (and calmly) to the other people present. “I chose this method because…” If others are not around and persuading the curmudgeon serves no benefit, it’s best to simply end the conversation by saying something like, “I suppose we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” 


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.