Of all the professional challenges we encounter, those that have to do with other people—other difficult people, to be more precise—seem to trouble us the most.  

Yes, there may be some more technical challenges to the work we do—but the solutions to those we can find in a book, on Google, or by asking a more experienced colleague for advice. 

But there is something unusually rattling about the collision of ideas, opinions, or personalities, with another human at work.  

Who are you calling “difficult“?!

A friend recently shared with me her experience with a difficult colleague.  Clearly frustrated by the situation, she capped off her story with the exclamation “and then, he had the nerve to call me difficult!!!”

My genuine curiosity overcame my urge to assure her she was not difficult.  “Were you surprised to hear that someone thought of you as difficult?”, I asked.  

She stopped walking for a moment and thought.  

“I was.”  She said, the wind slightly out of her sails, a sadness peeking out from the sharp corners of her anger.

My friend is one of the most good-natured people I have met.  It is hard for me to imagine anyone considering her to be difficult.  But I have been around the world of work long enough to know: 

“Difficult” is in the eye of the beholder.

I too have worked with some difficult people over the years.  I have struggled to gather a sufficient response to bombast, bullying, and all forms of aggression and dismissiveness.  

But even as I have struggled with difficult people, I have always at the same time found it interesting that we would entertain solutions to the problem by accepting the term “difficult people” as its entry point.  After all, those whom you have labeled as “difficult” most likely do not identify themselves that way.  

They probably do not get out of bed in the morning and look at the motivational poster hanging in their bedroom that encourages them to “Be difficult!”.

They likely do not say to themselves “Yes!  Today I am going to make someone hide in the bathroom and cry.  I wonder who the lucky person will be…”

Looking at “difficult people” the wrong way round.

Mightn’t it be true that it would be difficult to find common ground with someone when you don’t even agree on how to define “difficult”?  What is “difficult” for one person may be “justified”, “important”, or “appropriately challenging” to another.

So, by my thinking, that leaves us with a frame of reference (“they are ‘difficult’”) that doesn’t actually help us solve the problem of the difficult people in our lives.  

Last week I attended the live recording of the Women at Work podcast, hosted by Amy Gallo and Amy Bernstein.  The episode, which airs sometime in October, focuses on Gallo’s new book Getting Along.   I enjoyed the talk and her empathetic, realistic view on the topic of dealing with difficult people.  In the talk, and in the book (which I have only just begun reading, full disclosure), she offers tactics bespoke to the specific difficult behavior demonstrated.  I see the value in that, and I certainly see the appeal.  

That said, what resonates with me, even more, is the part of her work that encourages us to look inside ourselves.  This is because I have seen time and again, in my own life and in working with my clients, that we are much happier when we focus on what we can control.  

But I would take it even a step further.  

I would argue that there is even more richness to be reaped beyond merely avoiding insanity in the process of trying to control that which we cannot.  I would argue that, actually, we can benefit from these experiences, if we will allow it.  

“Everyone you meet is your student and your teacher”.

If this statement (a foundation principle of IPEC, the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching) were true, it might bring a new perspective to your interactions with “difficult people”.  It might lead you to wonder “what is this person here to teach me?”  Or, “how can I help this person learn something valuable by how I respond to them?”  

And that might lead to a different decision about what to say next time you encounter their difficult behavior.  And that different decision just might change the trajectory of your future working together.

Do we need tactics for the different types of difficult people in our lives?  Maybe.  It certainly feels cathartic to hear them categorized and named and to understand that other seemingly nice, normal people find this sort of person to be a problem.  

But the real payoff is when we shake off these encounters quickly, learn from them deeply, and become all the better for having had them.

And so, I raise a toast to the difficult people in our lives.  May we all become better for having met them.  And may we recognize more readily the “difficult person” within ourselves, because I believe that makes us better too.

Wendy Hultmark, CPC, ACC, is a coach who helps women in leadership own their stories and write the next chapter. Learn more at www.wendyhultmark.com.