How Lawyers Deal With Difficult People

By John Allison

Some people are genuinely difficult to deal with.  They may have a need to be “right,” and will have trouble hearing another person’s point of view.  They may have a deep sense of insecurity, and micromanage other people due to their fear of losing control of a situation.  They may have psychological wounds that make it virtually impossible for them to trust others.  They may be impossible to please.  They may engage in abusive behavior to intimidate or to gain the upper hand in a relationship.       

Difficult people present a particular challenge for lawyers.  They seem to invite an adversarial response intended to change their behavior or to “put them in their place.”  Yet dealing with difficult people in an adversarial way will usually make matters worse.  An adversarial response to a difficult person is likely to make the person more entrenched in their behavior and may also cause a situation to escalate.

When dealing with a difficult person it is helpful to take a moment and ask yourself whether the person seems to be reacting negatively to something you did or said.  If so, try to clear up any miscommunication that may have occurred and any misunderstanding that might exist. 

It is also important to accept the fact that you cannot change the other person.  You can only control your response to the person’s behavior.  By using one or more of these techniques you can deal with a difficult person without becoming reactive and adversarial:

Remain calm and centered – don’t let the person throw you off balance or put you on the defensive.

Consider the strategy of a martial artist, deflecting the person’s negative energy without becoming reactive.

Draw a clear boundary around abusive behavior You are not dealing with the person in order to take abuse.

Understand why you find the person difficult to deal with so you can communicate in a way that reduces the risk of triggering the person’s reactivity. 

At some point you may need to have a frank discussion with the person about the difficulty you are having dealing with him or her.  In that discussion it will be extremely important to avoid criticizing the person or putting the person on the defensive.  Instead, stay focused on the person’s difficult behavior and talk about the effect that behavior has on you.  


John Allison is a professional career coach backed by years of experience as a successful lawyer. He is the founder of The Coach for Lawyers and author of The Art of Practicing Law: A Practical Guide for Lawyers.