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There's no such thing as a Difficult Person : Communication and Conflict Newsletter
April 26, 2010

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Difficult Person?

There's No Such Thing as a 'Difficult Person'
(....or how, when we label others as 'difficult' it blinds us to our own capacity to learn new ways of responding to behaviours we find difficult.....)

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CAOTICA the CAOS Conflict Management Blog

Hi Everyone!

Welcome to Newsletter no.23 - April 2010

There's no such thing as a Difficult Person

A common sign of an ongoing conflict situation, one that has not been resolved, is that labels begin to emerge describing the people involved.

One of the most common labels is difficult person (bully is another one), and is commonly heard in organisations where a particular person has made a complaint or provides particular challenges for those who deal with the person.

It is, of course, heard in many other contexts as well and, as a less 'derogatory' label than some that can often be applied, it serves as a good example to explore.

When we find someone's behaviour difficult it often feels less onerous to simply dismiss them with a label as 'difficult person'. Unfortunately, as with many of our behaviours in difficult situations it can be a short term answer that does not lead to a long term solution.

Through taking this action we overlook the fact that in any interaction those involved have their own view of the world and act on the basis of that view. We could continue to say 'they are wrong' in their view but that is unlikely to lead to a sudden awakening to our perspective by the other person such that the problem disappears.

In fact it will often lead to a reflected statement saying a similar thing 'You don't know what you are talking about'..etc. and ultimately, as we see in both small scale disputes between individuals and large scale disputes between groups and nations, the dispute entrenches and nothing moves.

In the mean time a lot of hurt, stress, fear, anxiety and other negative consequences ensue.

Firing labels at the other person or group is entirely analogous to the shells and bullets that were fired across the trenches in World War 1. Very little movement occurred by either army, with both trying to gain ground and failing. But in the meantime, the devastation of human life behind the lines and in the trenches was enormous.

The label 'difficult person' is an example of how this manifests in an argument, and, in a conflict responded to destructively, a similar label will be fired in return. While nothing seems to move, the damage to each side continues to mount.

A constructive response arises when one or both or all of those involved stop firing labels and begin a discussion of 'what' the problem is rather than 'who' the problem is.

  • The discussion of 'what' the problem is allows within it the acknowledgement that the problem is a shared one, enabling a shared response, and a co-operative, even if challenging, response.
  • The discussion of 'who' attaches the problem to an individual and expects that person or group to 'change' to fit with the person who fires the label, who holds no expectation of self-development and resists self-reflection for fear of having to accept the label themselves if they do.

Ultimately this competitive response to conflict can never lead to resolution. There may be suppression of the conflict if one side can literally overcome the other and force them to change. But this is no different to putting a lid on a boiling pot. It continually has to be watched, because the problem has not been resolved, it has been covered up. The damage to both sides continues.

The label 'difficult person' can only be subjective as it is an ineffective way of expressing that 'I have difficulty with something you do'. The latter acknowledges that the difficulty is mine, and that I may be able to find better ways of managing my own responses to 'the thing you do'.

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It is rarely acknowledged, once a conflict has become destructive, that to respond in this way actually renders me more powerful, as I have much greater control over my own responses than I do over yours.

I need to put a lot more effort into trying to change you than I do to change me. And with you I may never succeed. And I may always blame you for my failure to change you.

And as a result I may live a very unhappy life, because I have never taken advantage of the opportunity to reflect on, learn about, and in one way or another, change myself, even if that change is just to 'see' things differently, or even just to acknowledge that there is that other perspective without having to hold it myself.

All the time I believe there is such a thing as a difficult person, I live in a fantasy world where I am powerless, and my actions are likely to damage me, as well as others.

There is no such thing as a difficult person, just my own difficulty with responding to something that person does. And that is my own difficulty. I own it, whether I like it or not. Saying another person is difficult means I have abdicated my responsibility for my responses to that person, I have tried to deny my ownership of my responses, and yet they can only be mine.

To acknowledge that I find someone's behaviour or actions difficult is to take ownership of my responses, to give myself a starting point in finding new ways of viewing their behaviour and of responding to it.

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Ultimately, the resolution of that difficulty lies only within me.

I don't even need the other person to know that I once thought they were 'difficult'.

Quotation Corner:

"It doesn't take two people to end a war, only one, and you're the one. What a perfect set up." - Byron Katie

From Your Inner Awakening by Byron Katie (Nightingale Conant) - The Work, Live, A man does The Work on his son's disrespect for him.

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Besides being the author of the Communication and Conflict website Alan is Director of CAOS Conflict Management Tel. +44 20 3371 7507

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Recommended Books

It can be easier to label someone a 'difficult person' in order to justify avoiding them rather than dealing with our difficulties with them. The following book provides support and insights into how we can engage with people we find difficult.

Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success in Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time - Susan Scott addresses the possibility of meaningful conversations with chapters such as: 'Master the Courage to Interrogate Reality', 'Be here, Prepared to be Nowhere Else', 'Let Silence do the Heavy Lifting' - practices that lead to intimate, honest, challenging communication.

Do you want your own income generating website?

This is who I use to create mine:

Special SiteSell Promotion

Click here to find out how I created the Communication and Conflict website.

Free e-book - Contemplations on Communication and Conflict (click the link to download)

This e-book is an archive of some of the early observations and anecdotes I have written for these newsletters, but now collected together in a free downloadable e-book, my aim being to make them more accessible than for you to have to scan through various web pages to read them.

Please remember.....
If you have problems viewing this Newsletter or, for some reason, it doesn't 'look right', please Click Here to go to the Communication and Conflict webpage where it is located.

Some links that you may find interesting...... is an excellent resource of information relating to mediation. There are articles, links to websites and blogs as well as the possibility of locating mediators in your area. - is a comprehensive guide to information about Self Improvement, Personal Growth and Self Help on the Internet. It is designed to be an organized directory, with articles and references to thousands of other Web Sites on the World Wide Web. is a rich source of information, quotes and support to enable us to find and be true to ourselves.

Oh Wow This Changes Everything is a great site with an enormous number of links to articles about different aspects of effective communication and conflict resolution. Definitely worth a could be there for hours! helps people, like yourself, create change in their life and business. They share fun stress management strategies and personal development articles.

New This site is sooo full of great links and resources relating to Co-operative Communication skills - I would very much recommend it.

Learning Supersite is a fascinating site dedicated to the development of informal learning. "A new approach to learning, the Learning Supersite is a venue that provides personal learning community, but with state-of-the-art Web technologies."

Transforming Conflict is an excellent organisation which works with young people, and adults, in educational settings, promoting restorative approaches to conflict.

Aik Saath This is an amazing and interesting website, quite besides the work of Aik Saath that it promotes. Aik Saath works to promote conflict resolution skills in young people and the development and support of racial harmony in Slough, UK and its surrounding areas.

Would you like to build your own website?.....this is how I built mine... I Love SBI!

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