Helping leaders emerge

Narcissists feel entitled to get respect.

They aim to be the most important person in every room.

Humble people strive to show respect.

They aim to make everyone feel important in the room.

                    – Adam Grant, Organizational Psychology Professor, Wharton


Many clients sign up for coaching to learn how to deal with difficult individuals because they know that effective leaders need and have practices for showing up calm, confident, and respectful when engaging with tough colleagues. An executive client shared that one of his peers was making rude comments about him in front of others. As a result, my client felt himself becoming triggered whenever he engaged with his peer. Another executive shared that her supervisor was micromanaging her and making unrealistic demands. Both clients were concerned because they had to work regularly with these challenging colleagues and intuitively understood that their colleagues’ behavior was not going to change.

As you (unfortunately!) know, difficult colleagues – as well as people in our personal lives (family, friends, members of our communities) – come in many shapes and sizes, including being self-centered, self-absorbed, bossy, and even, on the more extreme side, unaware about how their behavior impacts others, entitled, demanding, overly critical, mean–spirited and manipulative. And if you’re worried you’re like this, chances are you are not because most difficult people do not self-reflect or have concern about how their behavior impacts others.

Since difficult people are not always interested in or capable of insight, they are most likely not going to change. Therefore, it’s up to you to change how you show up, so that you can remain confident and grounded and protect yourself from their negative energy.

While I don’t believe there is a one–size–fits all approach for dealing with difficult individuals, you can experiment with different self-management strategies to better manage difficult individuals and situations and build your inner resources.

I would say the overall goal when dealing with difficult individuals is to learn how to expand your window of tolerance for dealing with discomfort (an important life skill!), train in the skill of compassion toward yourself and others, and ultimately feel happier and more resilient.


Self-management strategies clients have successfully used when engaging with difficult individuals:

Set a Goal for the Interaction. Your objective is to remain present, calm and grounded, and find some peace and ease during a difficult moment. For example, when I start to feel triggered, I will get grounded in my body, feel my feet on the floor, and start to focus on my breath. See Get Present and Grounded below for more information on how to use your body and breath to remain present, calm, and grounded.

Prepare. Take time and space to prepare for a difficult interaction. It’s helpful to prepare by writing down your goal and process, meditating, and/or taking a walk. Click here to read Courageous Conversations and learn which questions might help you prepare for difficult situations.

Have Compassion for Yourself First. Acknowledge that it’s tough and often draining to deal with toxic individuals. Make sure you give yourself sufficient space to prepare to be with them and engage in self-care after the situation to recover and renew your energy.

Have Compassion for the Other Person. While it doesn’t excuse their behavior, recognize the other person is behaving the way they are because they are suffering. One technique to help with this is a loving kindness meditation ­­– you are welcoming in self–compassion and extending compassion to the other person. You really do it for yourself, because it helps you remain more at peace and find some ease in a difficult situation. For more information, click here to read Why Loving Kindness Takes Time by Sharon Salzberg.

Get Present and Grounded. Use your body and breath to find a sense of equilibrium and ease. Continue to focus on your breath and bring your attention to your feet planted firmly on the floor. Connect with your own breath by counting to three on the in–breath and five on the out–breath – which will activate your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system and stop the fight or flight (sympathetic system) response.

Take a Break. It can be very challenging to remain calm and grounded for an extended period of time, so continue to check in with your goal and feelings during the difficult conversation. If and when you feel like you’re losing your grounding and going into overwhelm (fight or flight) mode, ask to take a coffee or bathroom break, return to your breath, and remind yourself of your goal. One client found it calming and grounding to place her open right hand over her heart as she took three deep breaths.

Stay Out of Drama and Be Solutions Focused. Remain clear about your best intention and vision for the meeting and relationship, so you can come from a place of being grounded and centered versus reactive.

Acceptance. Recognize you are not responsible for the other person’s behavior, and he/she is (most likely) not going to change. Sometimes, by showing up grounded and calm, you can have a positive impact on the other person. But sometimes you cannot. Your goal is to remain grounded and calm – and try to find some ease in a difficult moment – regardless of how the other person behaves.

Let Go. It’s the same thing as acceptance. Remember it’s not your job to fix or change the person. Even if you’re in a situation where it is your job to provide feedback about his/her behavior or actions, the other person is ultimately responsible for his/her own thoughts, words, and actions.

Forgive but Don’t Forget. By forgiving the other person, you are not condoning his/her actions but rather cultivating a self-care practice that releases you from toxic and negative feelings and enables you to meet difficult individuals where they are in order to keep your energy calm and grounded. But it’s important to note that you should always do your best to protect yourself from being in harm’s way. Forgiveness does not mean condoning the other person’s actions. Click here to download a worksheet and learn more about establishing a forgiveness practice through meditation or journaling.

Establish Energetic Boundaries. Some clients find it helpful to visualize a spacious circular bubble around their body, so they feel protected by a cushion of space. Then, if the other person says something that is upsetting, imagine it bouncing off the bubble and back at him/her. This approach keeps his/her negative energy from entering your own personal space.

Maintain a Sense of Humor. You only have to be with this person (hopefully!) for a short amount of time. He/she has to live with him/herself 24 hours a day.

Remember it’s a practice, so experiment with different strategies and always go easy and gentle on yourself!


Monthly Inspiration in Leadership

  • Click here to listen to How to Deal with Emotionally Immature People (Including Maybe Your Own Parents) with Dr. Lindsay C. Gibson on Ten Percent Happier podcast with Dan Harris. This podcast is useful in understanding emotionally immature people (EIPs); Gibson describes EIPs as demanding, entitled, and incapable of emotional intimacy and she offers practical strategies on how to successfully navigate relationships with EIPs.