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Dealing with difficult people

Dealing with difficult people

It is easy to joke that our job as lawyers would be easy if it weren’t for the people.

All jokes aside–whether they are clients, colleagues or opposing Counsel–difficult people have the potential to make your life a living hell. 

So what can you do about them?

As a family lawyer with over 15 years in practice, I have encountered more than my fair share of difficult people, and I have learnt plenty of skills to deal with them.

Here are some initial strategies you could try implementing as a starting point:


1. Be proactive not reactive

When people are being difficult, your first reaction to their obstructive behaviour is likely to be emotionally based–such as anger, frustration and fear. Our emotions, although completely natural, can cause us to act in a way which only serves to escalate the conflict, and we unwittingly exacerbate the problem because we have become enmeshed and engaged in it. You can attempt to avoid this by continually and explicitly re-focusing communications to identify and solve the problem, while acknowledging and constructively addressing the potential 'road blocks' to resolution that the difficult person is raising.


2. Don’t take it personally

It is common for difficult people to come across in their communications as undermining and critical. They may make veiled or direct threats regarding what they might do. It is natural to feel as though their comments are directed at you on a personal level, and it is hard not to react accordingly. But don’t feel special! It is far more likely that difficult people are difficult to everyone than it is to be a personal vendetta. As best you can be, try to be calm, civil and matter of fact in all communications with difficult people.


3. Be clear in your communications

At the core of many problems encountered with difficult people is miscommunication and misunderstandings–including inflated expectations of what is possible. The earlier you can set ground rules and realistic expectations for all important matters the better, such as the usual responsiveness of communications, costs and timeframes for completion of tasks. A word of advice though–if there are any changes due to unforeseen circumstances, you should communicate those problems and adjusted expectations accordingly at the earliest opportunity.


4. Look after your own health and wellbeing

This might seem like a strange concept when focusing on how to deal with difficult people, but there is sound logic behind it. None of us are at our best if we are tired and hungry (as anyone knows if they have recently dealt with a toddler!), or attempting to deal with unresolved personal issues on our own. If you neglect your physical and mental health, this will ultimately impact detrimentally on your ability to function at work, including your ability to deal appropriately and constructively with difficult people.

Angela Burr, director and accredited family law specialist, Saunders Law.


Angela will be presenting a workshop on Dealing with Difficult People to share more of her insights and practical tips on 28 February and 5, 13 and 21 March at the Law Institute of Victoria. Please see the here for further details.


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