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The Care and Feeding of Difficult People

By Jennifer A. Cameron

As attorneys or professionals in the legal industry, we sometimes have to endure people who frustrate or annoy us on a daily basis. The good news: the solution to dealing with difficult personalities lies with you. The bad news: the solution to dealing with difficult personalities lies with you.

That means, it takes two.

I worked with dozens of demanding TV news anchors, entertainment and sports personalities, hundreds of stoic law enforcement officials and numerous strong-willed attorneys. Quite a few had toxic personalities, and I survived by understanding their language, their perceptions and knowing a little about their story so I could adjust my behavior accordingly.

A good number fell into one of the following types:

1. The Droner
2. The Naysayer
3. The Dogmatic
4. The Procrastinator or Un-decider

No matter which personality you face, there are steps to take to reduce tensions, avoid conflicts and improve relationships.

First, listen before you engage. Really listen. Second, always stay calm. The only thing you control is yourself. Third, be relevant in their dialogue. Your goal is to explore the reasons behind their defensive behaviors. Finally, ask open-ended questions to better understand their specific needs, anticipate consequences they may not have thought of or help them understand their cost of doing nothing. Then, focus them on solving their issues.

1. With that said, let’s start with Droners. We all work with “over talkers.” They typically don’t have your best interests in mind. Solution: Project an image that your time is just as valuable. When they interject themselves, tell them you have only a certain amount of time to listen and then arrange for a meeting to discuss further. This move prevents hurt feelings and creates trust, making it easier to deal with them in the future.

2. Naysayers. These energy sponges are typically prone to exaggeration and thrive on negative attention. Solution: When they repeat their negativity, acknowledge that you have heard their point, and then switch the conversation to a different or lighter topic. If you’re in a position of authority, put them in charge of a project. Naysayers do well as advocates who can take on “the system” to solve a problem.

3. Dogmatics. They can come off as defensive or even rude. Rules make them feel safe, providing markers to succeed. A common cause of inflexibility or rigid behavior is fear of rejection. Solution: Validate their right to their opinions; however, don’t become inflexible yourself. Say “You seem frustrated about this. I’m trying my best to understand how this is impacting you.” Don’t let them dominate a group. Most group members surrender rather than tangle with someone who is determined to take a stand. Set group norms which include an equal hearing for all. Stick to the process and redirect the communication flow as needed. Be polite, but firm.

4. Procrastinators and/or Un-deciders. Indecision can occur when people lack self-confidence, have poor work habits or fear uncertainty. Their behaviors could stem from choice overload. Solution: Break overwhelming projects into bite-size chunks. Provide clear paths to follow, putting them more at ease in making decisions with unknown outcomes. These personality types may become more decisive if they receive positive reinforcement.

A personality conflict is one of the most difficult challenges we face in the workplace, because it thrusts most of us out of our comfort zone. The good news is, you can take control. From sneaky slackers to office tormentors, possibly, the only thing holding you back from a sense of normalcy, is you.


Jennifer A. Cameron is director of marketing and business development at Shannon, Gracey, Ratliff & Miller, LLP. Before joining the firm, she spent a decade as a marketing and public relations professional, and nearly 20 years in TV news, the last 5 yeas as a 2-time Emmy award winning investigative journalist. Jennifer can be reached at jcameron@shannongracey.com. For more information, visit http://www.shannongracey.com.