Do Difficult People Actually Exist?

Image: © 2016 P.L. Houtekamer

Try the following: Write down one of your good qualities and call that A. This can be any sort of quality, such as proactive, friendly or empathic. Now think about how another person would experience your behaviour if you were to exaggerate this good quality, and call this B. If you exaggerate ‘proactive’, for example, that could be experienced as meddling or pushy. There isn’t one correct answer; think about how you would experience an exaggerated behaviour in another. Now, think about what could be an opposite of B, but in a positive sense. For meddling that could be being patient, for example. This positive opposite, you call C. The last step is to exaggerate C: Someone who is too patient never gets going, or is passive, for example. This is called D. Now for the million-dollar question: Do people who demonstrate the behaviour D tend to irritate you?

For most people they do. This is an example of an exercise from Daniel Ofman’s core quadrants (Ofman, 2014). A is one of your core qualities. B is what you need to be careful of, because it’s your pitfall. C is what you should learn a little more about, as this is your challenge. And D, now that’s your allergy. People you experience as being difficult will often display exactly the behaviour you describe under D. That is also the key word in this sentence: Experience. These so-called difficult people seldom regard themselves as being difficult. Chances are that, as they will have different core qualities, they don’t appreciate some of your behaviour either.

Difficult people don’t exist, only behaviour you don’t appreciate exists

The clue is that difficult people don’t exist, only behaviour you don’t appreciate exists. To link this to the emotions: Your emotions (including the irritation this behaviour gives you) are a product of your history. So too does the other’s behaviour (which irritates you) come from his history.

You could go as far as to question why you would want to label a person a certain way in the first place. The wish to label someone says more about your inability to cope with the unique aspects of the other person than about the person themselves. In real life you often need to look past your sympathies and antipathies. Most of us need to deal with all kinds of people, not only those we like or those who are easy to deal with! So, how do you see to it that the behaviour of others that lies in your allergy doesn’t knock you off kilter? There are three major routes, none of which excludes the other:

  • Separate the behaviour from the person: Accept that people are different, and that’s okay. It isn’t the person but their behaviour you don’t appreciate. And that behaviour comes out of the available behavioural alternatives that other person has at their disposal. It is a result of how they experience their emotions and how they give expression to their emotions. And your antipathy is a result of your life history.
  • Suppress your urge to convert: If everyone were exactly like you, the world would be very predictable. Yet also extremely boring. All forms of learning would become redundant, and personal development moot. Embrace the idea that people are different, and that is a good thing.
  • Increase your tolerance: Tolerance only exists in relation to something; it needs an object. By working on your challenges from the core quadrant exercise you do, however, increase your tolerance for behaviour from category D – that is, your allergy. You are better able to deal with the behaviour you don’t appreciate; it gives you less stress and tension. The tip is that whenever you notice someone eliciting your antipathy, try and work out which of your core qualities it is related to. Your challenge or point of learning follow straight out of that exercise.

The other’s pitfall usually lies in your allergy. And vice versa!

Usually the antipathy you feel is mutual; take a look at the following example:

Your core quality versus that of the other:

Active, doer | Peaceful, thoughtful, thorough

Your pitfall versus that of the other:

Pushy, impatient | Too much thinking, not doing (analysis paralysis)

Your challenge versus that of the other:

Patience | Decision making

Your allergy versus that of the other:

Passivity | Impulsivity

In this example it is clear straightaway: Your allergy lies in the other’s pitfall and vice versa. In this example the core quality and pitfall are clearly demarcated, yet in reality there are shades of grey. Your behaviour constantly fluctuates between these two extremes (that is, the core quality and your pitfall), and the same goes for the other’s behaviour. The problem is that as soon as one of you two moves even slightly in the direction of his or her pitfall, the other overreacts by falling deeper into his or her own. In the example above, the more the other weighs his or her decision, the more you see this as passivity and get pushy. The other then interprets this as impulsive, or not thoroughly thought through, further reducing his or her willingness to make a decision.

How to deal with this kind of situation? The best solution is to mention that the relationship seems to be less than optimal, and together look for the reasons. It could mean that you will need to do some self-disclosure to explain where your tendency for action comes from. Another solution is to challenge yourself to look past the other’s behaviour (that irritates you) and also take a look at what good sides they bring into the equation.

In summary, difficult people don’t exist. You will, however, encounter people whose behaviour you don’t appreciate, or downright irritates you. This is because you are also human. By being aware of your own qualities, pitfalls and challenges, you are able to lessen the impact this kind of behaviour has on you. Also, actively looking for the positive sides of the other helps to put this behaviour into perspective.


  • Ofman, D. (2014). Bezieling en kwaliteit in organisaties [Ensouling and quality in organisations]. Utrecht: Kosmos Uitgevers.

Excerpted from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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