Dealing with Difficult Behaviours (Rather Than Difficult People)

Dealing with Difficult Behaviours (Rather Than Difficult People)
Labour Relations

In the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts course, we start by asking participants what they would particularly like help with in their workplace.  A common response is “difficult / high conflict people”.  However you define it, this is a huge challenge in today’s workplace and, unless it is handled well, it takes significant time, energy and expertise away from the work to be done.

Most people have heard about Serena Williams’ public outburst at the U.S. Open this fall.[1] Her behaviour and words were shocking and unexpected.  Does that make her a “difficult” or “high conflict” person?  If so, then how does that change our thinking about the situation and the complex issues that emerged afterwards?

When we encounter these situations in the workplace, it is important to try to avoid the very human desire to label people and move on.  There are better ways to handle things.

The focus of this article is to suggest three key principles:

  1. Start with self-assessment
  2. Focus on the behaviours not the person
  3. Find and use accessible tools and skills to handle these situations effectively

1. Start with self-assessment

Tammy Lenski quotes psychologist Jeffrey Kottler:  “Every person you fight with has many other people in his life with whom he gets along quite well.  You cannot look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself.”[2]

It is probably safe to say that the chances that we can actually change another person are pretty low.  So it makes sense that we need to start by examining ourselves.

Because we view the world only through our own eyes, it is often very hard to see how we may have contributed to a situation or to certain difficult behaviours.  Categorization is a cognitive tool to help us assert control and manage uncertainty or complexity.  In some ways, it simplifies our lives to put people in boxes, like calling someone who disagrees with us “difficult”.  We all have blind spots (the things that we don’t know we don’t know) and the minute we label someone we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to identify and learn from our blind spots or to see the situation from the other’s viewpoint.

In addition, if we label we open ourselves up to a variety of implicit biases, most notably:

  • Confirmation bias which causes us to look only for information that supports our original preconception
  • Stereotyping which can lead to “us” and “them” approaches
  • Fundamental attribution error, a bias which causes us to attribute another person’s poor behaviour to a serious personality issue, but attribute our own poor behaviour to a tough context or situation

What is the best way to uncover our blind spots?  Curiosity plus vulnerability (which Brené Brown wisely says also involves great courage).[3]  We need to pause and ask people we trust about the situation and our perceptions. Are they fair, balanced, accurate?

We can also benefit from strengthening our empathy muscle.  More on that below.

2. Focus on the behaviours not the person

I can be very “difficult”.  I remember a time when I was trying to advocate for a very ill family member in the health system.  Looking back, I was probably perceived to be like the proverbial “dog with a bone” because I had a particular question I needed to be answered and none of the experts seemed able to provide an answer in a clear way.  If the experts chose to label me as “difficult” in that situation they would be more likely to dismiss my concerns instead of trying to find out what my underlying issues were and how to resolve them.

Tammy Lenski points out that most of us can be difficult in certain situations or with certain people but that doesn’t merit the label of “difficult person”.[4]  When confronted by difficult behaviour we need to resist the temptation to conclude that someone is crazy, stupid or evil.

I suggest that in conflict, people’s “difficult” behaviours can fall into four broad categories:

  • Upset – anyone can be upset for a wide variety of reasons
  • One off or contextual behaviour seen as difficult – most of us
  • Repeated patterns of difficult behaviour (the group Bill Eddy refers to as “high conflict personalities”) – some of us
  • Personality disorders – a few of us

The fourth category needs training to diagnose, but if it is present, it may be helpful to call in various kinds of skilled support (EAP, counselling, etc.).

Bill Eddy’s reference to “patterns of behaviours” is helpful because it focuses on the behaviour and not on the person.[5]  We need to avoid a quick judgment (e.g. “difficult person”) since our assumptions may hide helpful information.  There may be something else going on.  Sometimes they are people who are being scapegoated.  Sometimes they are raising important issues that the organization needs to hear but would rather avoid.

Research confirms that the most successful teams (and organizations) have high levels of “psychological safety”, which means a culture which actively fosters the belief that one will not be criticized, rejected or punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.[6]

Further, Amy Edmonson (Harvard Business School) found that:

“.. the best employees for promoting organizational learning are often those who never leave well enough alone, pointing out mistakes and flawed practices. But those who management rates as top performers are often those who silently do what they’re told and what has always been done—and don’t annoy their superiors with complaints and questions about flawed practices.”[7]

In a setting with low psychological safety, it is likely that the employee who “never leaves well enough alone” will be labeled as “difficult” and his or her input will be discounted or ignored.  This result could be an enormous loss to the organization.  How can we continue to value the person and their input, and focus on addressing any inappropriate behaviour in a healthy way?

Professor Julie Macfarlane commented on the Serena Williams scenario:  “What I am trying to point out is that Serena shows us how easily and quickly we buy into a demonized evaluation of someone and their behaviour.[8]  The tennis court is Serena’s workplace.  Did this situation involve a clear pattern of behaviour or was this a one-off unfortunate event?  Many people were quick to judge her and some of the comments have the hint of confirmation bias working behind the scenes.  In the middle of her tirade she was trying to make a point about important issues at least worth talking about.  I’m not saying her behaviour was acceptable.  It wasn’t.  But it is easier to dismiss or ignore what she was trying to communicate if we label her as a “difficult person”.

3. Find and use accessible tools and skills to handle these situations effectively

After doing our self-assessment and considering the nature of the behaviour, what do we DO to deal with a person’s difficult patterns of behaviour in the workplace?  This is where our empathy muscle comes in handy.  Some people in the workplace who create or participate in patterns of difficult behaviour:[9]

  • Experience conflict as part of who they are. It’s a life-long personality pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting.
  • May be starved for empathy, attention and respect
  • May have alienated everyone around them
  • Are used to being rejected, disrespected and ignored
  • May use conflict as a way to get attention – even negative attention is better than none at all
  • Tend to attack those closest to them or those in authority
  • Are usually incapable of logical talk about or insight into themselves or others
  • Have trouble feeling empathy
  • Tend to blame others (Brené Brown describes blaming as our brain’s way of discharging pain or anger and avoiding accountability[10])

Knowing this, I feel compassion for people whose patterns of behaviours eventually sabotage their own happiness in inexplicable ways.  They can end up very lonely people since they push everyone away, even those who are very caring and want to help.

Bill Eddy advocates for starting with curiosity and then developing and communicating empathy, attention and respect.  Curiosity and active listening help us to avoid snap judgments and implicit biases and can improve psychological safety.  Empathy can lead us to different responses that can have a profound influence on how we deal with the behaviours.

These approaches seem, at first, counter-intuitive when we see the impact of difficult behaviour on the people we work with.  But remember that if we start with punishment, we may just be feeding that person’s need for attention rather than helping to shift the behaviours.

There are effective tools, skills and training available to help you navigate difficult behaviours.  I highly recommend both Bill Eddy’s High Conflict Institute[11] and Tammy Lenski’s website, podcast and blog.[12]  Both provide very valuable resources on this topic.  I have found that knowledge alone is not enough.  We need to learn skills that take practice to master.  I encourage you to seek out training and you will see a difference.

The good news?  These skills are useful with everyone – not just those exhibiting difficult behaviours.  Bonus.

Join us at the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program to learn more about dealing with difficult behaviours and many other things.


About the Author

Kari Boyle

Kari D. Boyle is a conflict engagement practitioner, consultant, trainer and retired lawyer. She served as Executive Director of Mediate BC Society for ten years followed by one year as its Director of Strategic Initiatives. She enjoys using her legal, mediation and management experience to improve citizens’ access to viable and affordable conflict management options in the workplace and beyond. Previously, she practiced corporate commercial litigation in Vancouver for 14 years, worked in-house for 6 years specializing in legal services management, led mediation research initiatives at UBC, served as an adjunct professor at UBC Law School and provided support to the Civil Justice Reform Working Group and the initiative to create a new set of Supreme Court Civil Rules in British Columbia. She is currently the Coordinator of the BC Family Justice Innovation Lab, a member of the Access to Justice BC Leadership Group.

Kari is a facilitator with the Queen’s IRC Strategies for Workplace Conflicts program.



[1] ESPN. (2018, September 08). 2018 US Open Highlights: Serena Williams’ dispute overshadows Naomi Osaka’s final win | ESPN. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[2] Lenski, T. (2017, December 04). How to deal with difficult people: A mediator’s strategy. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[3] Brown, B. (n.d.). The power of vulnerability. Retrieved September 28, 2018, from

[4] Lenski, T. (2017, December 04). How to deal with difficult people: A mediator’s strategy. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[5] Eddy, B. (n.d.). Who Are High Conflict People? Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[6] Lewis, A. R. (2018, June 28). The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[7] Sutton, R. I. (2018, August 13). How Bosses Waste Their Employees’ Time. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[8] Macfarlane, J. (2018, September 10). Crazy, Uncontrolled, Bad: How Serena Williams was Punished. Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[9] Eddy, B. (n.d.). Who Are High Conflict People? Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[10] Hurlock, H. (2018, June 05). Two Lessons on Blame from Brené Brown. Retrieved from

[11] High Conflict Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

[12] Lenski, T. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2018, from

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