How to Deal With Difficult People

how to deal with difficult people

We all have difficult people in our lives.

If you’re involved with a nonprofit, maybe that’s your boss. Or a board member who doesn’t trust you. A very demanding client. Or a staff member who constantly misses deadlines.

I recently received an email from a nonprofit leader who had all of these malcontents in her life. While it’s hard to know for sure from an email, I sensed that this woman was competent. Definitely not whiny nor playing the victim.

“I know this kind of stuff goes on all around the world, every single day,” she said. “Some people can’t seem to behave.”

She continued to describe more obstacles and downright silliness, ending with, “I suppose all of this is to say that some guidance on how to deal with difficult people would be helpful.”

Now I have previously written about dealing with toxic board members and how to fire a staff member.

But the uber question (not meaning the car service) about how to deal with difficult people in general? Goodness knows there are many other people far more equipped to offer advice than me.

That said, I am never short on opinions. And so in that spirit I offer my own “Top 10” list of how to deal with difficult people.


One important thing to consider before we get to the list.

Look in the mirror.

Let’s start with the toughest and most obvious question. If you are surrounded by people you perceive to be difficult, is it possible that YOU are the problem?

Describe one of the problem situations to someone you know well outside of work. Get a reality check. Maybe you are (a) overly sensitive (b) overly demanding (c) forgetting that someone is a volunteer (d) burned out (e) tired of staring at challenging cash flow numbers (f) can’t get a decent celebrity for your gala or (g) all of the above.

OK, now that we know that it could not possibly be you, here are 10 strategies you might consider trying when dealing with difficult people in your organization.


1) Listen to learn.

This is a ground rule of mine when I design and facilitate retreats. When someone is speaking, you are not waiting impatiently for the other person to finish the thought you are paying no attention to so that you can then offer the perfect rebuttal to prove how right or smart you are.

You are listening because you may actually learn something (and not just how difficult the person is). You might hear a clue that helps you decode what is causing the difficulty and thus how to resolve it.

2) Create a custom dartboard (or two).

For the record, during my own tenure as an Executive Director and as a board leader, I never actually ordered one of these. But in the spirit of full disclosure, I did research my options. Here is the best one.

An important reminder – this is something you keep in the privacy of your own home.

3) Kill ‘em with kindness.

The nonprofit sector tends to attract pleasers — folks who like people to like them. As a trait it can be a liability — it can be hard to say no.

But I like a strategy filled with, “Oh, what a fantastic idea – I hadn’t thought of holding a board meeting at a circus camplet me look into that and see what that would look like.” Don’t lead with no. Lead with validation. And if there is a no to follow, maybe there is someone else who can deliver it.

I’m also a big believer in apologies. At galas, I would travel to the back of the room to the tables with obstructed views (or the tables that saw the entrees come out before everyone else did). I’d thank them for coming and yes, I would apologize for the seating. It wasn’t easy.

Think about how you can neutralize difficulty. Or preempt it.

4) Recruit with attention to attributes.

Here’s a simple one. Do what you can to avoid bringing difficult people onto your organizational bus in the first place. Then the question of how to deal with difficult people becomes less important. Pay close attention to attributes, not just skills.

As part of work I am doing with the leadership team of a nonprofit, we visited Hospitality Quotient. Started by restaurateur Danny Meyer, the consulting firm helps organizations create great work environments and great client experiences. Danny says it starts with the folks you bring onto the bus. He talks about recruiting for folks whose skills are 49% technical and 51% emotional. Here’s his emotional list. It’s a good one. He tells folks to look for:

  • Optimistic warmth
  • Curious intelligence
  • Caring empathy
  • Strong work ethic
  • Self-awareness
  • Integrity

The more you focus on these, the fewer difficult people you will have in your orbit.

5) Shut your door and shut off your mind.

Ten minutes. All it takes. I have two apps on my phone. One is called Headspace and the other is called Calm. Free apps. I was skeptical but they work.

6) Remember that difficult people really care.

OK, so some difficult people really care about themselves. But I find that more often than not, if you listen to learn (see #2 above), you will unearth a passion for your organization’s mission. And you can work with that! If they really care about the work, you can use your skills of diplomacy and your “pleaser” capabilities to turn what feel like lemons into lemonade.

7) Assess the collateral damage.

You have to lead. And you have to determine if the misbehaving staff, board member, donor, or volunteer is making life insufferable for you, a small group, or is having a widespread impact on the organization. This will help to shape how you deal with the person, who you bring in to help you manage the situation, and what you all see as the best resolution.

Just remember that if you do let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch, you are going to lose all your best apples.

8) Poke yourself in the eye with a stick (NOT).

I don’t mean this literally although I did laugh as I wrote it. What I mean here is that faced with difficult people, many decide to play the victim. As a nonprofit leader your job is to create an environment that allows for the best work to be done in the service of your mission. I’m sorry to report this but strong leaders are not allowed to play the victim.

9) Hit the mute button.

Oldest trick in the book and works like a charm. You feel no need to respond, you can catch up on email, and the voice on the phone begins to sound like the teachers in the Peanuts cartoons.

10) Read my post about things you can do when you’re just having a bad day.

This is one of my most popular posts. Let’s say the meditation thing above (#5) made you roll your eyes. I get it. It happens.

Try this instead. It will take less than 10 minutes. Click this link:

10 Things to Do When You’re Having a Bad Day

having a bad day


Here’s the thing about nonprofit leadership — you can’t do it all by yourself. It takes a lot of different kinds of folks to deliver on your mission And the chances of some of those folks misbehaving and others being downright difficult is very high.

In fact, strike that. It’s going to happen. It’s probably happening to you. You can rattle off a list of folks right now, can’t you?

So be prepared with these strategies for how to deal with difficult people. I hope some of them will help.

But I’m not even close to the only “expert” in the tribe here at Share your own strategies for how to deal with difficult people in the comments below. We’d all love to hear from you.

Extra points if you make a reader laugh, smile, or take notes.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Alli Reid

    SMILE BACK. When I see a difficult person walking toward me to complain, yet again, I put on my million watt smile and force my “oh, dear god, here they come again” hyperventilation a to the soles of my feet. NO ONE likes to nag a genuinely happy person and sometimes the contagious-ness works a bit and softens the rant. And when I want to throw daggers I keep that smile beaming and nod my head. It doesn’t always resolve the difficulty but the physical act of smiling through it just keeps me calm and centered.

  • jamie gardner

    Love it. Thanks Joan. What is the calm app? I use headspace but the main calm I found in iTunes was for overriding the mac startup sound…

  • Kyle

    Impossible to dismiss dialog box? I clicked the x like a dozen times before it went away. It means that this webpage is a ‘difficult to deal with’ site. The solution for those is not to go there…

    • Kyle – apologies on that. It wasn’t intentional. There’s some sort of bug going on and we just disabled the dialog box entirely for everyone until we can figure out a solution. Thanks for reading the blog!