What is a difficult person?

Wherever you work or live, eventually you’ll come across someone that you think is difficult to deal with. Maybe to you a difficult person is someone who shouts or uses abusive language. Perhaps it is someone who insists you do things their way. Or maybe it is a person who cries and triggers a guilt reaction in you. There are many types of behaviour which can be labelled ‘difficult.’

When you find yourself face-to-face with someone you believe is difficult, it helps to keep things in perspective. After all, no-one uses challenging behaviour all the time. No-one is 100% difficult or a ‘difficult personality’. Ask yourself whether it is the person you find hard to handle, or their actions. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus claimed two thousand years ago “It is not things themselves that disturb us, but our judgments about those things.”

Remember that everyone resorts to challenging behaviour sometimes – including you. For example, when you’re tired or stressed you’re probably more likely to snap at other people. But I’m sure you’d agree that doesn’t make you a difficult person. It just means you are communicating from an un-resourceful position at a single moment in time.

Styles of difficult behaviour

There are three main styles of ‘problem’ behaviour that you’re likely to find hard to deal with. All three challenging reaction styles – aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive – can be triggered by physical reactions to stress. This stress can be chronic and ongoing. For example, someone anxious may feel stressed most of the time. Or the stress can be a reaction to a specific situation. An example of this is the person who gets a nasty shock and reacts aggressively, even though they are normally calm and reasonable.

There are two key emotions underlying most difficult behaviour. These are fear and stress. Each of these emotions triggers the brain’s danger detection centre – a part of the brain called the ‘amygdala.’ The amygdala responds to danger even before you’re consciously aware it exists. This helps you react quickly in order to protect yourself. But it also causes difficult communication styles to emerge.

So a specific sequence of events underlies difficult behaviour. First, the person becomes fearful or encounters a stressor. Next, the amygdala reacts and signals their body to go into self-protective mode. Finally, the person adopts a defensive behaviour pattern. This pattern influences their feelings, thoughts, actions and communication style.

Some people respond to an amygdala hijack by resorting to passive behaviour. They avoid being in situations which present threat. This means they avoid taking risks, taking initiative or being independent. For instance, some people when forced to try something new at work will react with anger or fear. Overwhelmed by their emotions, they might resist change. At the same time, their capacities for creative and rational thinking diminish. This reinforces their passive reactions over time. For tips on handling passive behaviour, read this practical tip sheet.

Other people react aggressively when they experience an amygdala hijack. For example, if they are faced with an uncomfortable environment, they try to fight their way out of it. This form of reactive behaviour is most evident when people are cornered and afraid. The amygdala hijack plays a very essential role here – it drives the aggressive behaviour. If you need to know how to handle aggressive behaviour, you’ll find a useful article here.

Amygdala hijack also underpins passive aggressive communication. For example, while you’re speaking to a colleague, they may appear to agree enthusiastically with your request. However, rather than complying with it, they then might display emotions of anger or resentment by missing deadlines, complaining, making lame excuses or even actively sabotaging the task. You’ll find advice on how to handle passive-aggression here.

Not sure what type of behaviour you’re dealing with? Take my free behaviour analyser questionnaire and find out now.


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