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ATD Blog

4 Hacks for Dealing With Difficult People

Thursday, June 4, 2020

You know the difficult type—those who always resist your requests. People tend to avoid new ideas and change whenever they can and resist them when they can’t. Any of your requests for people to do things differently has the potential to be met with resistance, either passive or active. As a leader, you need to understand where the resistance is coming from, address any strong emotions head-on, and focus on finding common ground.

Resistance usually comes from a place of fear and uncertainty. The resistant individual is not trying to be difficult or make your day miserable; they are simply scared of the unknown and need reassurance that you are on their side.

At work, you must be skilled at overcoming resistance to effectively align teams with organizational strategy, increase customer satisfaction, and implement new systems and processes. If you don’t address sources of resistance early on and show people that you’re on their side, their negativity can spread. What started as a single resistant individual can grow into an entire resistance movement in the organization and undermine your ability to achieve organizational goals.

Overcoming resistance means eliminating people’s reluctance to change by addressing their fears and objections and convincing them to take actions. In our extensive research and testing of nearly 800 executives for my book The Leader Habit, my team and I discovered microbehaviors leaders use to overcome resistance. They:

  • Address people’s fears and reluctances by acknowledging their negative emotions and helping them to name those emotions.
  • Sell people on the benefits of change by highlighting how they will personally benefit from the change.
  • Facilitate the discussion to mutual agreement; periodically check the understanding of all parties involved and summarize what has been agreed so far during the discussion.
  • Convince people to act by highlighting shared goals.

Once you understand that these behaviors are the key to overcoming resistance, you will need to internalize them for yourself, turning them into habits. Based on our findings, we have created three simple exercises that will help you improve your ability to overcome resistance.

Exercise #1: Address Fears

Resistance usually comes from strong negative emotions, such as when people feel threatened by change or fearful of it. Acknowledging these negative emotions and helping people to name them is an effective way to overcome resistance. Get in the habit of asking about people’s fears and reluctances using this exercise:

After noticing even the slightest resistance, learn about the person’s concerns by asking key questions.

For example, a colleague may show slight resistance in the form of an “I agree with you, but . . .” statement, and you could ask, “Can you tell me what about this doesn’t feel right to you?”


Exercise #2: Highlight Benefits of Change

On the rational level, resistance may also come from misunderstanding the change or from a lack of awareness of its benefits. You can practice selling individuals on the benefits of change by using this exercise:

After identifying a procedure that you need to change, ask yourself, “How will people benefit from changing this workflow?” Write it down in one sentence.

For example, the benefit of streamlining your quality assurance process would be that employees have fewer checklists to fill out, resulting in less required overtime.

Exercise #3: Find Two Areas of Agreement

This microbehavior requires making a conscious effort to periodically summarize areas of agreement during a discussion, which demonstrates to the other person that you are on their side, not their enemy. Practice this exercise:


After starting a conversation, focus on finding two areas of agreement. Summarize each one as soon as you discover it by saying, “It seems to me that we agree on. . . . Is that correct?”

For example, you could agree that both of you are committed to addressing the issue under discussion and want to reach a mutually agreeable solution to the problem.

Exercise #4: Identify and Highlight Shared Goals

It is easier to overcome resistance if you can convince people that an action is linked with their goals. Use this exercise to practice identifying shared goals:

After finishing a meeting, write down one goal that you share with the other people involved in the meeting.

For example, your shared goal could be to have a smooth product launch or to satisfy your customers.

By making these behaviors part of your daily routine, you will be on your way to overcoming resistance and avoiding the spread of negativity. This will enable you to effectively align teams with organizational strategy and allow you to achieve organizational goals. This will help you learn how to deal with difficult people.

About the Author

Martin Lanik is author of the international bestseller The Leader Habit and CEO of Pinsight. His habit-forming leadership training focuses on five-minute practice sessions woven throughout the day. Lanik’s research-based formula has helped thousands of high-potentials, managers, directors, and executives in 30 countries build stronger leadership skills. More than 100 companies – including AIG and CenturyLink – have implemented his programs, which have been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, Chief Executive, and Chief Learning Officer. Martin holds a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology from Colorado State University. Learn more at

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