9 Tips For Dealing With Difficult People

Blamers, complainers, and bullies, oh my! The Savvy Psychologist offers 4 tips for dealing with difficult people, and 5 more for taking care of yourself after a close encounter with the difficult kind. Plus: does bedwetting predict psychopathy? Find out in our new Savvy Listener Mail segment!

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #30

Difficult people are like bedbugs: they’re unfortunately common, hard to get rid of, and can make your life a nightmare. Many thanks to Jill Nicely, of Overland Park, KS, for officially requesting this podcast--which is applicable to every one of us..

Rather than covering difficult people type-by-type—like Debbie Downers, passive-aggressives, show-offs, those who cling like a bad case of static, and more—I’ve streamlined different strategies for deadling with all types, and separated them into four core tactics.

So when leaving a horse’s head in the bed isn’t an option, try one of these four things: Approach, Confront, Acquiesce, or Avoid.

Strategy 1: Approach 

This is how your best, most generous, and caring self would handle this person. Indeed, when attempting the approach method, your mantra should be “opposite action.” When you want to plug your ears and run, instead take a deep breath, listen, and offer genuine kindness.

Approach can work with blamers, showoffs, micromanagers—basically, anyone whose ridiculousness stems from insecurity.  When they, for once, feel heard, seen, and appreciated, they often retract their claws. 

But be warned: approach doesn’t usually work for complainers or clingers. For complainers, lending them an ear only provides a soapbox, while clingers magically intensify their stickiness when they find a sympathetic ear.

Strategy 2: Confront

Many difficult people have no idea that they leave a trail of offended eye-rolls in their wake. So “confront” is a bit of a misnomer here—perhaps the tip should be “offer feedback.”  And rest assured, my fellow conflict-shy brethren: “confront” never involves getting angry.

Instead, it requires disclosure of the difficult person’s effect on you. You don’t have to get mad; just give them some information and, hopefully, they’ll take it from there.

Reframing with gentle humor can be a great way to package your message, if it fits your style. For example, complainers can be gently dealt with using the phrase, "Ah, our first world problems.”  Or, “Hey, if that’s the worst thing that happens today, you’re doing all right!”  Then, change the subject.

Another method is giving more direct feedback. For clingers, try the classic, “When you…I feel…” For example, “I should probably let you know that when you text me every half hour in all caps asking WHERE ARE YOU?, I feel smothered, and it makes me not want to answer you.”

Likewise, for micromanagers, you could say, “I can tell this birthday party is really important to you, and when you rearrange everything I’ve set up, it makes me feel redundant. How can we do this better together?”


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.