Resource Library Articles

Managing Oneself With A Difficult Person

By Dr. Daniel Papero
Published by Working Systems, Inc.
Presenteded with permission

How does one manage oneself with a difficult other person, be it boss, supervisor, peer or subordinate? I have heard this question a lot in my travels this year.
Generally, people blame “personality differences” for their difficulties. While personality may have a role to play, I think it’s an inadequate explanation. In addition, the term “personality” indicates helplessness. People behave as if the difficulty is inherent and irresolvable, and do little to address their part in it.

In fairness, these are challenging situations. Stress tends to be high, behavior becomes automatic and reactive, and tensions rise rapidly and often predictably. I should add some disclaimers. These sorts of relationships are difficult for me. I work at them, but I am aware that discomfort often gets in my way. I have to make myself “lean in to” the challenge, and sometimes my own internal resources are not up to the task. Yet I have learned that to avoid the challenge provides only short-term relief.

The ability to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty is an important asset in the effort to manage oneself with a “difficult” other. The refusal to succumb to a sense of helpless is another. And the ability to “think systems” is third.

So, what can a person do to become more confident and effective in handling oneself with the difficult other person?

The process of managing oneself can be outlined as follows:

1. Decide that you have no realistic choice but to figure out how to work with this difficult other.

2. Begin to develop the internal structures necessary to manage oneself in a challenging relationship.

a. Blaming and pointing fingers may feel good, but they are counterproductive if the goal is working with the other. Shifting from blaming to other kinds of thinking is essential.

A person can learn to regulate one’s own mental processes. The effective person simply does not allow him- or herself to remain for long in blaming and criticism — either of the other or of oneself.

So breathe deeply, maybe splash some cold water over your face, and get on with the challenge.

b. Define the problem as clearly and factually as possible. Pay attention to the difference between facts and feelings. They often tell different stories.

Distinguishing between the facts and the feelings is an important piece of the self-regulation. Sometimes people find it useful to write the facts in one column and the feelings in another. Some feelings may provide energy and direction to your efforts, but anger and fear, particularly, must be managed carefully if they are to be used at all.

When you define the problem as clearly and objectively as you can and you have your facts and feelings separated, then you can begin the process of problem solving.

c. Learn to recognize your tendencies to feel sorry for yourself. Spend as little time in that state as possible. A friend who works with young mothers at risk of homelessness often tells them, “You can feel sorry for yourself 24 hours, and then you have to begin to work on a plan to address the situation.” That’s good advice, but difficult sometimes to implement.

3. Solving problems is what the human intellect does best. The process integrates feelings and thinking, fosters creativity, and adds knowledge to one’s capacity and sometimes to that of others.

There are many methods of problem solving. In general, they all involve setting a goal, developing a plan, implementing the plan, evaluating the results, modifying the plan and implementing that version, evaluating, and so on until the problem has been solved or managed.

That’s an important point. Some problems can be solved and some can only be managed well. In the first instance, the problem disappears. In the second, the problem never disappears, but its detrimental effects are contained. Both outcomes are possible in human relationships. The process of problem solving is central to either.

a. Setting a goal is important. The Bowen theory adds a twist to this general advice. Set the goal for yourself, not for the other person. What you are trying to do in the situation? What are the steps to that outcome? How are you going to measure or evaluate your effort?

b. I’ve found the following question useful in thinking about my own situations with difficult others. What is he or she up against in trying to work with me? When I can begin to answer this question, I know what I have to work on myself in order to become more effective in relating to the others.

4. Develop a research attitude. This lies beneath the surface of many successful efforts to manage oneself better in difficult relationships. Questions that help are who, what, where, when and how –who is involved, what happens, where and when does it happen, and how does it work?

Efforts to work on a situation become experiments. If an experiment is well designed and conducted, further questions, ideas, and approaches become apparent, allowing a new experiment to be designed and implemented. If one can find the research attitude, even very difficult situations become interesting, and one is continuously collecting data.

Think in terms of an ongoing series of experiments of interactions. Don’t try to fix things all at once. Quick fix approaches tend to fail regularly, and often they leave a more difficult situation in their wake. These situations are best thought of as marathons rather than sprints.

5. Focus on the process of flow of the interaction and not just on the content — the subject matter of the discussion or interaction.

Being able to see and understand the flow of the interaction helps one to regulate oneself more effectively. Paying attention to flow also helps one stay more objective and less reactive.

Among the things people learn to watch in the observing process:

a. The intensity or strength of the interaction, both one’s own intensity and that of the other person. The ability to regulate one’s own intensity becomes a useful skill.

b. The repetition of behaviors and interactions being able to observe those things that repeat over and over and then figuring out how they work is another skill.

For example, a sequence of attacking and defending commonly occurs in difficult situations. When one can “see” it as it happens, and not just reactively participate, new options emerge for managing oneself.

c. The duration of specific interactions and of longer term relationship stalemates — how long do the situations last?

Measuring the length of events can help measure progress, and is a way of thinking about managing oneself. Often, in difficult situations, things change slowly and people lose sight of their progress. Discouraged, they return to their old way of doing things, and the situations worsen. Tracking duration of events can help people stay on course.

6. Consult others who can stay relatively neutral and objective. You want people who can help you think clearly about the situation and your own role in it, not people who feel sorry for you or mad at the other person. Nor do you want people who become anxious about what you are trying to do.

Keep your consultations private. Don’t bring your consultant into the interaction with the difficult other, e.g. “John agrees with me about your behavior.” The two-against-one rarely works, and it puts your consultant in a difficult position. Whatever you do must represent you and your best thinking, not what someone else is prompting you to do.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, see if you can figure out a way to get interested in the situation and to have fun. It’s never always fun, but when you can get interested in the challenge, you will be less reactive, learn more quickly, and likely have a more favorable outcome.


c. 2002, Dr. Daniel Papero
This article was originally published by Working Systems, Inc. as part of the series “Reflections on Applying Bowen Systems Theory to Today’s Workplace”. (Used with permission). Consider subscribing to this series of audio tapes and hard-copy (past issues available). Learn more at:, or call 202-244-6481.

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