Dealing with Difficult People

It is impossible to go through life without meeting difficult people. For example, it may be a spouse who cannot express feelings, and grunts an ambiguous “yup” or “no” to virtually every question. It may be a temperamental boss who screams and puts people down when things do not go right. Or it may be a cheerful and personable friend who promises to help out with all kinds of projects, but is unreliable and seldom follows through with promises. Or again, it may be a neighbor who is a chronic complainer and sees only negatives in people and life situations.
If we are realistic, we know we cannot escape difficult people. Being around them and dealing with them is part of life. It is therefore important to know how to deal with them effectively.

In the early 1980’s, Dr. Robert Bransom wrote a best selling book, Coping with Difficult People. He described various types of difficult personalities and outlined practical ways to deal with them in everyday life situations.


Dr. Bransom describes seven types of difficult personalities. In each, the individual tries to control people and situations. The person displays specific behavior patterns which may be done consciously or unconsciously. See if you recognize any of the following behavior types.


Dr. Bransom describes three types of hostile-aggressive people:

Sherman Tanks

Sherman Tanks are bullies. They try to get their way in life by overwhelming others. They use aggression, intimidation and attack. They have a strong need to prove they are right.
In coping with Sherman Tanks, it is important to stand your ground and not let yourself be overwhelmed. Give the attack time to lose momentum, then step in and express your own point of view. Stand your ground without making it sound as though you are attacking in return.


Snipers are people who attack in more subtle ways. They do not overwhelm. Rather they take “pot shots” and make cutting remarks behind the guise of friendliness. Like Sherman Tanks, Snipers have a strong sense of how others should think and act. When you deal with Snipers, the most important thing is to “smoke them out” from their cover. If you are the object of a cutting remark, bring it to the surface—for example, “That sounded like a dig. Did you mean it that way?” Be ready to discuss the underlying problem. Get others to join in the discussion so there is group confirmation or denial of the Sniper’s criticism. Take action to correct the problem if criticism was warranted.


The Exploder is a person who throws tantrums when he or she feels thwarted or threatened. Coping with the Exploder is primarily a matter of helping the person regain self-control. First, let the tantrum run down before you enter the situation. If it does not run down, help break the spell of the tantrum state by speaking loudly and repetitively—”Wait a minute!” or “Stop!”. When you have gained the attention of the individual, say “I want to discuss this with you, but not this way.” Repeat the statement loudly until it gets through. Take a break and let the individual calm down before meeting with him/her to discuss the problem.


Complainers constantly gripe about people and things in their lives. They seldom do anything about their grievances because they feel powerless, or because they refuse to take responsibility.
When you deal with Complainers, it is important to break their negativism. First, listen patiently to what they have to say. Avoid situations in which either you or the other person becomes defensive. Move Complainers out of the attitude, “Nothing can be done to change things”. Guide them into a problem-solving perspective. Urge them to do some objective fact-finding about the situation. If you disagree with the Complainer, state your disagreement. Do it without saying that he or she is wrong.


Clams are individuals who respond to virtually every question or plea for help with a “Yep” or “No” grunt. They are unresponsive when you need to discuss problems. It is hard to know how they feel or what stand they are taking.

Your major task in dealing with Clams is to get them to talk. Ask them open-ended questions. Wait with composure for an answer. Do not fill up empty spaces with your own conversation. When you have waited as long as you can, comment on what is happening, then wait some more. If the Clam stays closed, terminate the meeting and set up another time to speak again.


Super Agreeables are personable, funny and outgoing, but they are not always genuine. When they are around, they are sincere and supportive. They want to please you and so they will make promises to gain your acceptance. However, they are not reliable, and do not follow through.

In dealing with Super Agreeables, make honesty non-threatening. Ask them to be candid with you—”I want to know what you really think because I value you and your opinion.” Listen carefully to the Super Agreeable’s humor. It often contains keys to his or her inner feelings.


Negativists approach ideas and situations by saying, “It won’t work!”. They put a “damper” on enthusiasm and deflate the optimism of people around them.

In dealing with Negativists don’t let yourself be “sucked” into their pessimism. Also don’t try to argue them out of their own feelings of negativity. Make optimistic but realistic statements about past successes. Approach the Negativist’s doomsayings as potential problems to be overcome. Do not offer alternatives yourself until you have thought them out and discussed them with others. Be ready to take action on your own, and announce this to others without faltering.


Know-It-Alls convey a feeling of their own superiority that makes others feel humiliated, helpless and angry. They are condescending, imposing and pompous.

To deal with Know-It-Alls, you must first do research. Get facts, back-up materials, etc. ready. Check them for accuracy. When meeting with a Know-It-All, listen carefully. Avoid dogmatic statements as you present facts. Use questions to raise problems.


Indecisives cannot make decisions. They stall until someone else decides for them. They are perfectionists.

In dealing with Indecisives, make it easy for them to tell you about conflicts which make it so hard to reach a decision. When you have surfaced the problem, help the Indecisives solve the problem by making a decision.


The brief summary of Dr. Bramsom’s book may be helfpul. If you want more information look for the volume at a local bookstore—Coping with Difficult People by Robert M. Bramson, Ph.D. (Dell Books). However, some situations require more than suggestions found in a book. They require professional help and counseling.

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