Dealing With Difficult People

They’re everywhere and knowing how to interact can have a profound impact on your business.

By Ed Butts, PE, CPI

We’ve all been there. An unhappy customer calls on the phone to complain about the mess your crew left on the lawn. Another might refuse to pay their bill until you make a series of unreasonable concessions to the invoice. Next, one of your new employees refuses to do a task they were actually hired to do one day earlier. Finally, yet another client swears your water treatment salesman promised certain things you know he never would.

All of this in a single day? Probably not, but what to do?

Now I will never claim to be an expert on all the ways to handle dissatisfied, unhappy, belligerent, or just plain mad customers or employees. But I have had to deal with many of them throughout my career. In this year’s final installment of “Engineering Your Business” we’ll discuss some of the factors that make for a difficult customer, employee, or even friend and what you can do to head off a bigger problem. My original title for this column was going to be “Dealing with Difficult Clients,” but some recent incidents opened my eyes and I subsequently changed the title. Although I can outline disputes with past or current clients, it’s simply not enough to let that be the sole focus, and not review problems many of us have with suppliers, employees, and others as well.

To be fair to all concerned, the actual title should be “Dealing with Difficult People—Including Me!” I’m certainly not immune to the frailties of being human or the one-to-one personality conflicts that often arise from these relationships. In fact, in many of the cases I will cite I may be as much to blame as the other person in the incident. That said, I hope many past events in my life mentioned here help lessen your personal involvement in such clashes.

General Degrees of Difficulty

Before we delve into the interpersonal relationships and dynamics that can cause or negate potential clashes with others, I would like to summarize some of my own personal observations.

Dealing with difficult people is not always a matter of assigning blame to another individual and tagging them as the “difficult one.” In fact, more often than not, you could be regarded as the instigator or protagonist. It may have started with a slight comment you made, an observation, or even a compliment where you meant no harm or insult, but was nonetheless interpreted as such.

Another common mistake occurs in situations where a split second of anger or frustration results in a misdirected comment, and just a few more seconds would have caused you not to vent—or as I say, “You would have sucked the comment right back in.”

Most people I know like to feel their opinion is valuable. Disregarding or ignoring the input from another will most certainly result in hurt feelings at the least, and possibly a major row with someone close to you at the most.

Lastly, I’ve caught myself or others occasionally talking over the top of some people, particularly with coworkers, in technical matters—cases where their input and suggestions may well be more valuable than mine. These are situations where I may have been doing something the same way for more than 30 years, see no reason to change, and have become so entrenched in doing it my way I’m not even open to a possible better idea.

This attitude not only robs you and your client of a potential better solution, but can also rob the coworker of selfesteem and goodwill they might badly need.

These are just a few of the ways I have discovered where I may have been responsible for a disagreement. Human dynamics are complex enough, and you by yourself cannot fix all the problems in the world. You can, however, correct those comments and personality traits you are individually responsible for.

Categories of Difficult People

So to understand how to work with difficult people, I think it is first important for you to understand the various categories of these individuals. I have learned everyone doesn’t have the same priority with their issues or complaints. Many individuals have specific financial motives directly related to their problems. These that follow are my classifications.

The Money Manager: A successful individual who does not necessarily need to get a lower price for their services, but revels in the thought he was or will be able to get one over on you and get you to concede a lower bid, even if just a few dollars. This is usually a congenial and pleasant person, as long as he is getting his way.

Dealing with this type of person, more often than not, is knowing what your “wiggle room” is on a bid and how much you can afford to lower your bid. I have even been in situations where I purposely inflated my proposal price enough I could afford to lower my bid price by 1% or 2% to get the job and also make the buyer think he won. They’re everywhere and knowing how to interact can have a profound impact on your business.

I have also realized the typical money manager is not necessarily a private individual out to see how much he can save but can easily be a representative buyer from a large concern, someone charged with getting goods and services at the lowest cost possible. In these cases, he must always give—if not actually show—the impression to his supervisors he is “on the job” looking out for the firm.

The Penny Pincher: The individual with a need or desire to save as much money for goods or services as humanly possible in order to use the saved money for other purposes. Many times the motive is real, but often misguided, needing to save as much money as possible to replace the roof or buy a new pickup.

It is questionable if any of the people in the two categories truly meet my definition of “difficult people,” but they are customers who place you in a position where you must negotiate and often lower your bid. Dealing with customers where the financial realities are generally the most important are usually the hardest to work with.

In addition to those with a financial motive are those who are difficult for other reasons.

The Unhappy Person: I have occasionally been accused of being this type of person—by my wife, no less. I think she sometimes confuses true and genuine unhappiness with an occasional bout or period of melancholy or “the blues.” There have been many times during my life when I could have been considered an unhappy person, but I think most of those experiences were simply because of incidents or events at the time when I didn’t know how best to respond. I really don’t regard myself as a particularly happy or unhappy person, just one trying to roll with the punches.

The Unreasonable Person or Know-It-All: Truly one of the most difficult people to work with, for everything they say is regarded as the unvarnished truth—at least by them. There is often no compromise or unbending in their attitude, opinion, or decision.

This category is probably closer to defining me than the unhappy category. The best advice I can offer with someone unreasonable is keep your cool and do your best to slide your judgment or opinion into the situation so it sounds like it was their idea all along. Stick to your guns even if that means losing the job. After all, who wants a lawsuit?

I have been in situations where my engineering judgment was greatly questioned and an individual insisted we follow his directions. In these cases, you have to make a snap judgment with two possible outcomes: (1) What he wants to do is too dangerous to life or property. (2) What he wants to do may be more costly, but is not necessarily dangerous.

If the direction the client wants to go will not have a detrimental impact to life or property, and they are willing to foot whatever charges may result, I usually opt to go in their direction. After all, they may have specific reasons for the modifications you are not aware of. On the other hand, if the proposed revisions are potentially harmful to life or property, I feel it is incumbent you fight to retain the original concept or an alternate that will not be injurious, even to the point of walking away from the job.

The Argument Lover: The type of person you can never win against. The kind of person who loves to have conflict in their life and argue just for the fun of it. Yes, there are people like that out there.

The argument lover loves to argue for the sake of it. They will often change their original stance on a topic simply for the chance to create a disagreement. There are simply too few ways to win with this type of person. As the saying goes, “Pick your battles.” I have found you will be in a better stance if you always keep your cool, compromise when you can, and reserve your primary arguments for areas in which you cannot compromise.

In dealing with unhappy, unreasonable, and argumentative people, the best way I have discovered is to make them feel they have come out on top. Whether it’s the cost of the project or a singular item in the project, if these people feel they have somehow forced your hand and ended up in a better position, even slightly, the rest of the process will go much smoother. This is not disingenuous, but a simple way to avoid or cut off unnecessary conflicts with another person so everyone comes out a winner.

Another Group of People

Employees are another group of people often difficult to deal with and who can make unreasonable demands. The difficult employee generally has the best interests of other people, usually family, at heart and anything you do to contradict their judgment will generally result in an argument that can even escalate to a dismissal.

Employees are often a difficult group of people to read. Many times they will say or do something during an interview to get the job, and once they have it, do an about-face so quick you will think it is somebody else you are talking to.

The problem is: How can you tell? I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes and hired people who started filing worker’s compensation claims for a bogus accident or began taking far too many days off work within months. Heck, I even had a salaried employee who would regularly and dutifully show up for work each day and then drive home during mid-morning to work on his house—while being paid for it! He was finally caught when customers started to complain he wasn’t showing up for meetings and their projects were not getting done.

For more than 20 years, I supervised the crew assignments and scheduling for a water systems firm with more than 25 employees. That was followed by a tenure where I owned the same firm for the next seven years. The difference in personalities and the ongoing relationship between the crew and myself was startling during those two periods.

While I was their supervisor, I enjoyed a close and seemingly equal relationship with all the members of the crew. But once I became the owner, I noticed stark changes in almost everyone. Many suddenly resented me and didn’t want to accept work assignments, as they often felt it was “below them.” These are difficult situations indeed. After trying to work through the issues, I finally realized their attitude and insubordination was creating havoc in the crew and a severe loss of company productivity. As hard as it was, I either fired the people responsible or they quit.

How Difficult Are We?

Finally, everyday life can often throw you a curve and bring people into your life who are seemingly “impossible” to accept. For instance, what about yourself? Out of all the people I cited in this column, who could actually be the most difficult? Obviously, the answer is us!

I am not kidding. Many of the problems we have dealing with people are simply the result of our own idiosyncrasies and foibles. Think about it: How often do we really meet difficult or disagreeable people in our life? At least for me, most people I deal with in everyday life, personally and professionally, are friendly, warm, and congenial. Most of the disputes or arguments I’ve been in are generally the result of mutual misunderstandings or failure to yield by one or both of us to avoid a major argument after a minor dispute erupts.

I’m not here to give a sermon or tell you to always “turn the other cheek.” This is just a reminder many of the issues we have dealing with difficult people might be the product of our own creation. You’re probably thinking, “He’s quick with the causes, but not helpful with the cures.”

The reason is simple. I don’t profess to be a professional in inter-human relationships. I only offer my observations to illustrate many of us deal with the same difficult people and to explain some of the ways I have found to work.

There remains so much I still need to learn about people and fostering relationships with them. I’m always trying to find new ways I can develop meaningful friendships and relationships with the people I meet and am always working hard to patch up those friendships I have lost.

One important fact I now realize is too many of the friends we once thought we had for life actually pass through our lives far too fast. Whether due to death, retirement, a change in occupation, or just as a consequence of life, it’s true. I hope a little bit of what I have written will have some meaning for you. Until next time, work safe and smart.

Ed Butts, PE, CPI, is the chief engineer at 4B Engineering & Consulting, Salem, Oregon. He has more than 40 years of experience in the water well business, specializing in engineering and business management. He can be reached at