Dealing with Difficult People and Difficult Situations in Not-for-Profits

There’s nowt so queer as folk 

The phrase “there’s nowt so queer as folk” (which is variously attributed to different parts of the British Isles) describes many of the difficulties people can cause in community organisations

People can be difficult in many ways, sometimes deliberately, but often without consciously intending to be difficult.  Because many community organisations welcome almost anyone who is interested in their activities they commonly attract a range of often dissimilar people, some of whom may be “difficult” in some way or another.

There may be numerous reasons for difficulties arising in our dealings with other people, and such factors may apply to us and/or to the people with whom we have difficulties, including: 

  • Factors such as personality, age, educational background, life experiences, psychological trauma, illness, injury, medication, etc.,
  • Fear or uncertainty caused by a lack of knowledge, insecurity or previous experiences, 
  • Scepticism (especially an inability to see individual or collective benefits), and
  • Reactions such as rejection and defensiveness, and offensive or passive responses.

A psychologist or behavioural scientist might best know how to deal with difficult people (especially individuals with particular characteristics) and difficult situations, but for most people responding to such difficulties is not easy.  This article draws on negotiation and mediation techniques to help deal with “difficult people.”

Difficult behaviour 

Difficulties may manifest themselves in different ways, but are likely to fall into one or more of the following categories:

  • Offensive behaviour:  Aggressiveness, threats, pressure tactics, personal (ad hominum) attacks, negative attacks on proposals, treating concessions as signs of weakness, physical intimidation, ultimatums and walk-outs, 
  • Obstructive behaviour:  Limited authority, defensiveness, reference to a third party, setting pre-conditions, setting unrealistic deadlines, natural/unnatural deadlines, ignoring deadlines, unrealistic demands, and escalating demands, and
  • Deceptive behaviour:  Good cop – bad cop routines, nibbling away to get more concessions after agreement seems to have been reached, claimed legitimacy, limited authority, leaking misinformation, and deliberate misunderstanding. 

Unless we are careful, we may respond to such behaviour inappropriately.  For instance, we might respond in kind, which may well play into the opposition’s hand as they are likely to start the type of fight at which they may well be masters.  Therefore, we need to beware of instinctive, reactive responses.  Bearing in mind the different types of difficult behaviour and the various reasons for that behaviour, there are a number of different techniques that may be helpful when dealing with difficult people and situations:

  • Maintaining personal objectivity,
  • Seeking to “disarm” difficult people,
  • Harnessing or redirecting the energy of difficult people,
  • Finding a way out for difficult people – by solving their problem for them, 
  • Seeking options for mutual gain, and
  • Using minimum force with difficult people.

Maintaining objectivity

To retain a sense of perspective, good preparation is necessary before difficult situations arise, and further preparation may be required during the course of seeking to deal with the difficult person or situation.  That means we have to be prepared to continue to question and clarify in order to extend our knowledge and understanding of the issues, and to buy time to formulate appropriate responses to difficult people and difficult situations.  It is often useful to repeat the points made by a difficult person or people as this helps ensure that you have a clear understanding of what they are saying, and it also helps by demonstrating that you have heard what is being said to you.  As Henry Ford noted “If there is a secret to success, it lies in the ability to see things from another’s point of view as well as from your own.”  

If people are being deliberately offensive or aggressive then recognition of the tactic for what it is also shows that we are not threatened by the tactic, but retain the ability to be objective and analytical.  It may also be useful to ask for time to think about what the others are saying, perhaps by adjourning to seek advice or instructions or to discuss progress.  Remaining silent or responding very calmly can also potentially unnerve a difficult person who would prefer you to demonstrate a “fight or flight” response.

It is often not wise to make important decisions instantaneously as to “decide in haste” is often to “repent at leisure.”  It is worth taking time to review the issues, your best alternative to an agreed solution, and the reason for the issues being raised and the difficulties arising.

Seeking to disarm difficult people

A difficult person may be disarmed in a number of different ways.  For instance, they can be disarmed by surprise, by you acknowledging their status, dignity or job, the actual or potential validity of the point being made, the tactic used, or by agreement.  If we are well-prepared and well-versed in a wide range of negotiation and mediation skills, we can be very flexible in our approach, while keeping our ultimate objective clearly in view.

Harness or redirect the energy of difficult people

Seeking to reframe or rephrase a stated position with questions, particularly by asking “Why this, not that?,” “What about this alternative?,” and similar non-threatening questions is a useful way of acknowledging the points made by a difficult person while inviting them to be involved in finding solutions.  That requires us to try to break down stated positions by clarifying or ascertaining relevant interests, options and standards.  Personal attacks on you should be redirected to the problem; for instance by saying “Yes, I agree we have a difficulty there,” or “Could you suggest how I could convince my committee/other members that this suggestion meets our interests and represents the fairest solution?”

Play the innocent by asking questions appropriate to different situations that arise; such as “I thought you had authority to settle this with me, was I wrong?,”  “Didn’t we have an agreement?,”  “Are you wanting to re-open negotiations?,” “Do you need to consult with other people?,” “Would it help if I saw your colleague/s myself?,” “How exactly does this relate to your statement that …?,” “You know I trust you, but you understand that I’ll have to check this with my colleagues?,” and so on.

If necessary, utilise basic negotiation and mediation techniques; such as changing the subject, checking against guidelines such as interests, options and standards; or adjourning.  If the difficult behaviour goes beyond acceptable limits, be soft on the person but hard on the behaviour, respond with “I” statements that acknowledge your feelings or reactions (and aren’t seen as aggressive by the other person), seek time out or even walk out.

If we are to solve our problems we have a vested interest in solving the difficult person’s problems for them, preferably so they do not lose face.  Accordingly, we need to seek to identify and acknowledge their interests, utilise their ideas (even allow them to take credit for our ideas), make haste slowly without pushing them, establish momentum with the easy points, suggest a wide range of options, make offers, summarise progress as we go, do the necessary work for them (such as drafting agreements, asking for their criticism and improvements, redraft etc.), and create their “victory” (even “write their victory speech” for them).

Seek options for mutual gain

Edward De Bono is well-known for coining the phrase “lateral thinking,” and he explores methods of encouraging more effective thinking in his book Six Thinking Hats.  He suggests a formal convention by which different imaginary “hats” are worn to allow thinkers to act out distinct ways of thinking.  The colours chosen are symbolic of the type of thinking required while wearing each “hat”:

  • Identifying the pure facts – while wearing a “white hat,”
  • Looking for positive elements in a proposal – “yellow hat” thinking,
  • Being negative about a proposal – wearing a “black hat,”
  • Allowing emotion to rule – with a “red hat,”
  • Nurturing creativity – under a “green hat,” and
  • Assessing ideas objectively – with the convention of the “blue hat.”

Of course, difficult people are unlikely to agree to such game-playing (wearing imaginary thinking “hats”), but these six different ways of thinking may help to identify particular types of difficult behaviour, or to suggest a change of approach to difficult issues and people.

Use minimum force with difficult people

The primary objective is to persuade difficult people by reference to principles rather than by coercing them to agree.  However, we may need to warn them of consequences without threatening them, then threaten before using force, and finally use all the power at our command.  The general rule is to use the minimum of power necessary to attain the result, preferably operative “power to” get something done rather than “power over” someone.  If we can, we should boost our best alternative to an agreement (deal with someone else, take them on in their own constituency, refer to a third party, etc), and diminish their best alternative to an agreement.  The power of legitimacy can be tapped to justify our approach.  If at all possible, we should endeavour to help difficult people to agree gracefully.

Satisfying agreements

A good, principled win/win result when dealing with difficult people should have the following features:

  • The individual interests of all parties will be satisfied, and, preferably, mutual gains will have been made,
  • The agreement will be legitimate; by objective standards, and subjectively for all parties, 
  • The agreement will be realistic and enduring, representing the best of available options, and
  • The agreement will include incentives to ensure it is honoured; that is, it will be compliance-prone and enforceable.

Some useful resource texts

This article is the author’s synopsis of the contents of the following books”

  • Getting To Yes, sub-titled “Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” by Roger Fisher and William Ury. 
  • Getting Past No, sub-titled “Dealing with Difficult People and Difficult Situations,” by William Ury.
  • Getting Together, sub-titled “Building Relationships as We Negotiate,” by Roger Fisher and Scott Brown.
  • Negotiate and Win, by Colin Rose.
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey.
  • The 8th Habit: from Effectiveness to Greatness, Stephen Covey.
  • The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert Sutton.

For specific advice about issues discussed in the article you can contact Mark at

This is one of a series of articles on societies and charitable trusts by Mark von Dadelszen, a lawyer and author of Members’ Meetings, 3nd Edition, 2012, and Law of Societies, 3nd Edition, 2013 (both texts being in the course of editing for 4th editions to be published after the new Incorporated Societies Act is enacted).