Advice on How to Deal with Difficult People

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, your survival guide to our crazy-busy, ever-connected modern world hosted by Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADHD expert. Dr. Hallowell gives advice on how to deal with difficult people in your work and personal life.

Mini Episode 7: How to Deal with Difficult People

DR. HALLOWELL: Hi, this is Dr. Ned Hallowell. Thank you for joining us for this mini distraction. Like our full-length show these minis will be different every time, only shorter. It’s a busy world and you don’t have a lot of time, we get it, these episodes are for you. On today’s show we’re going to be talking about how to deal with difficult people.

deal with difficult people

One of the most difficult distractions to deal with in life is difficult people. If you can you want to simple avoid them, so that’s a no-brainer. How do you deal with difficult people? You don’t, you stay away from them. Sometimes you’re placed in a situation where you have to deal with them. If your boss is difficult, if you have a relative who you spend time with at holidays is difficult, if one of your neighbors is difficult, a colleague is difficult, we often find ourselves in situations where we have to deal with these people and avoidance alone won’t do the trick.

The best thing to do is to look at the role you’re playing in it. Ask how could I behave differently, instead of wishing the other person would change. Your wishing that other person would change and entertaining fantasies of revenge may be fun, but it’s not going to be productive. Wishing the other person would change ain’t going to happen, however, you can change. You can change your behavior around that person and try to notice what you do that makes this person difficult. If it’s simply that you exist, well then you do want to keep your distance from that person.

What Could I Do Differently?

Often times there are little buttons you push without meaning to. If you have any kind of trust with the person you could say, “You know, it would be a lot better if we could get along better. Can you tell me what I could do differently that would make us get along better?” Instead of saying to the person, “I wish you wouldn’t do X, Y or Z,” you could say to that person, “How would you like me to change? What could I do that would make me less difficult?” You flip it and say “I’m playing a role in this.” Then you ask that person, “What could I do differently?” That stands a much better chance of succeeding. The guy or the woman would be amazed that you asked, which will improve your relationship because they can see that you’re working on it. Then you can make some progress.

If you’re afraid to talk to the other person, and this often happens, see if there’s another person you could brainstorm with, a colleague, a supervisor, somebody else, the toxic boss sort of thing. Not in a gossipy way but in a constructive way. What could we do here that would allow us to engage this person in dialog, instead of simply putting up with it? Have discussions with others who have to deal with this person and come up with a game plan. How can we manage him or her in a different way? Best of all, find someone who gets along with him and send that person in because usually difficult people aren’t difficult with absolutely everyone, they have places where they can be reasonable.

Dealing with a Difficult Professor

Early in my training I was a research assistant before I went to medical school with the absolutely impossible professor of surgery at the Harvard Medical School. He was more than difficult, he was impossible. He was demanding, he was curt, he was peremptory, he would ridicule, he’d fly off the handle, he demanded work from us as if we were just the beyond of the peons. I began by really resenting him, if not, downright hating him, but I needed the job so I couldn’t just quit.

What I began to do is simply engage him in conversation. I would show him that I wanted to learn from him because he was a brilliant, brilliant man. I’d take his guff because I had to, but I wouldn’t pout and sulk and entertain fantasies of revenge, I would hang in there. The next thing you know, it took some time but I could tell he liked me. Guess what, I started to like him.

abraham lincoln

Abraham Lincoln nailed it when he said ‘I have destroyed my enemies by turning them into my friends.’ That’s what I did with this professor, and that’s what he did with me. I was never his enemy but I’m sure I was a pain in the neck. By the end of that year as I headed off to medical school he was my friend, and to this day he remains my friend.

Closing Statements

That’s it. If you have an issue, question, or suggestion, call us toll-free at 844-55-Connect, email at [email protected], or go to our website at To hear more, subscribe to distraction on iTunes. Thanks so much for listening.




This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, “How to Deal with Difficult People.” Distraction is available on iTunes.


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