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How to Deal with Difficult People

I’ve always been an diplomatic sort, and I’ve learned a fair bit recently in some internet dust-ups. Experience at LibriVox and elsewhere has taught me some invaluable lessons in dealing with jerks. Everyone deserves at least one thoughtful and detailed explanation, but often people then push for more. And more.

A friend just had a problem with a work colleague, who was sending complicated and accusatory emails about an issue she had little or no control over. My friend was in a state of great agitation, and was composing a long point-by-point email to explain what happened, and why it happened. I told her to stop. And gave her this advice (which worked like a charm):

First, some poppsych background:

1. difficult people want attention, they write long complicated and inflamatory things in emails or forum postings in order to get other people to write long responses.
2. irrational people will not be made rational by rational explanations. they are inherently irrational … and you cannot convince them to behave like adults.
3. there is no value in getting yourself worked up about how irrational someone is. it’s their problem, not yours, so don’t let it get to you.
4. You will never win by trying to convince difficult people to agree with your position.
5. You will win with the following advice:

Now the specific advice:
1. make your response brief
2. make your response polite
3. acknowledge the other’s frustration
4. do not accuse or imply that they are in the wrong
5. state the situation precisely and firmly
6. do not offer detailed explanations, specific examples etc.
7. make your statement firm and final, so that there is no more room for unreasonable arguing

Here is a good example:

Dear So-and-So:

I understand you don’t like such-and-such, and I’m sorry about that. But after looking at all the options, we have decided that’s the way it’s going to be.

Here is a bad example:

Dear So-and-So:

Look I understand you are pissed off, but I just wish you would try to see this from my view. It is so hard to do such-and-such and it seems like no one ever understands why we have to do it this way. You are always complaining about this – remember back in decemer when you said that thing? – well then as now there were several factors that made it totally impossible for … etc.

I had one run-in that I lost badly on Wikipedia, which is famous for it’s cantankerous wiki-wars. The issue was adding LibriVox links in Wikipedia, and whether we were linkspamming by adding the links ourselves. The debate lasted a whole day — the other guy was a jerk, but I didn’t help myself either — and it was one of the most draining days in my internet life. Finally a solution was reached, more or less (after the intervention of someone else), but I wanted to get an apology out of the guy. So I wrote a long, complicated and impassioned message, saying “I know that I did some things wrong, but you know you were not being totally reasonable, you made many people at LibriVox unhappy etc etc…” It was a long long message, and I thought it a model of magnanimous mea-culpa and an open door for the other guy to apologize, and everyone would make good, and I would have come out on top because I had reached out a olive branch, being the wise man that I am. His response?:

Oh, good grief.

Nothing more. It was devastating and brilliant, and taught me everything there was to know about myself and him and that agrument. The main thing is this: he won. I tried to convince him (to no purpose whatsoever) of his wicked ways, to get him to agree to something that was irrelevant to the actual problem, while showing how good and reasonable I was. I was, in short, being unreasonable (he was too of course, but no matter). What I wanted was for him to recant. And to answer my long impassioned plea with his own. And he wouldn’t. And I felt like an ass.

Brevity and clarity are the most powerful tools in communications, and will save you many headaches.


  1. reuben reuben 2007-03-25

    solid advice, hugh.

    I try to recognize when an argument is reason-based, and the person I’m arguing with is interested in arriving at the correct answer or some sort of solution, vs. emotion-based, when the interlocutor is interested in being right. It’s of course a spectrum, but often, when you keep this dichotomy in mind, you will see when an argument has crossed the line of irrational no return, and that’s when it’s time to end it, in the way that you have suggested.

  2. Hugh Hugh 2007-03-25

    definitely … good-faith discussions/debates are good & valuable… but when things just go on and on in circles, you have to realize that things aren’t going to get resolved. a foot must be put down. better your foot than someone else’s.

  3. Shawna Shawna 2007-03-25

    very good advice.. will pass it on to others. I’ve heard of these irrational arguments going on for weeks causing grief galore… so much energy wasted!

    Perhaps, if the need to write a long-winded email explaining your argument exists, it’s not so bad to write it all out if it helps to organize your thoughts.. I guess it depends on the complexity of the argument or how together your thoughts have been from the start, but then save it to drafts! Wait a couple days.. read it again, and I find it becomes quite clear it’s not worth sending. But sometimes it may have been worth writing ?

    I think sometimes we are proving / confirming something to ourselves when we feel that need to over explain. More beneficial to do as you say, send the “brief response” and end it. Then delete that long winded version should it exist, reflect, learn.. move on. :)

  4. Hugh Hugh 2007-03-25

    there are two different cases:

    1. you are debating something substantive, and there are valid reasons to discuss one side or the other.

    2. you have already exhausted substantive debate, and now the argument continues in cricles; or the interlocutor has been totally unreasonable from the start.

    My advice if for when you have moved from 1 to 2. Unless you are unreasonable yourself, you will noticed when the discussion goes from 1 to 2.

    And this advice is directed to people who are reasonable to start with.

  5. Josh Josh 2007-04-01

    Excellent advice, Hugh.

    You wrote: “He won”.

    You learned something about yourself, understood that it would be better for you not to spend too much of your valuable time trying to ‘win’ an argument with people who are jerks, and significantly improved your own worldview.

    You won, Hugh. Hands down.

    That people don’t see it on the Wikipedia discussion entry has no bearing at all.

    Gnothi Seauton.

    You won.

  6. Boris Boris 2007-04-02

    Charlie Brown won.

  7. Hugh Hugh 2007-04-02

    josh: ok, let’s call it a draw ;-)

    boris: yeah right. he landed on his back just like always.

  8. Josh Nursing Josh Nursing 2007-04-02

    Every learning opportunity is a win :)

    Congrats on moving to

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