Dealing with Difficult People & Difficult Situations

Setting The Stage For Success

College life involves frequent interaction with people in a multitude of situations, ranging from getting along with roommates to negotiating group projects. Part of your success and happiness in college depends on your ability to effectively negotiate problems. Here are some tips for dealing with difficult people and difficult situations:

  • Meet privately – having an audience causes more defensiveness.
  • Expect that difficult situations will take time to resolve – if you feel rushed, ask to meet at a later, specific time.
  • Don't take things personally. Recognize that your role is to be calm and objective. (Vent later with a friend or colleague if you need to.)

Use Active Listening Skills

  • Clarification – ask questions to clarify if you are unsure
  • Paraphrasing – rephrase content
  • Reflection – rephrase feelings
  • Summarization – listen for themes or main points
  • Physical cues – use head nods, eye contact, open body posture; this lets the listener know that you are listening

Identify The Problem

  • Clarify the expectations of the interaction
  • Encourage the person to talk – this provides you more understanding of the “real” issues involved and often provides clues for possible solutions.
  • Reframe the problem so that it is not personal. Ex. The problem is usage of room time, not that one roommate is a jerk who plays music too loudly, and the other is a jerk who sleeps too much.
  • Make the problem something that you are both working on collaboratively to solve.

Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.
Henry J. Kaiser

Problem Solve

  • As much as possible, do so collaboratively.
  • Ask what he or she has done to try to resolve the problem.
  • Provide the opportunity for everyone to “save face.”

Know Your Limits

  • You are not able or responsible to solve all problems.
  • Once you have done what you reasonably can do, don't beat yourself up if the outcome is not totally satisfactory to each of you.
  • Don't let the other person's problem become your problem. Your job is to problem-solve, not to simply take on other people's problems.

More Tips...

Work on one problem at a time

  • Make requests, not ultimatums
  • Focus on the present not the past. Focus on what you want, not on what you don't want

Note progress

  • Acknowledge progress to the other person
  • Reward yourself for achievements

Improving Communication In Your Relationships

Communication problems are the most common reason for seeking counseling, accounting for 40% of all counseling issues.

Problem-solving training changes communication skills and aids in creating interpersonal relationship satisfaction.


  • Be Realistic - change takes time; appreciate the small steps of improvement.
  • Stay friendly - work up to the more difficult topics; don't make negative comments. Focus on the positive.
  • Be optimistic - remember the good things about this person; try not to generalize criticisms (do not use "always" or "never").
  • Say things in ways that will be easy to hear - Make sure you understand what is being said. "What I heard you say was. . . “Is that what you meant?"

Recommended Reading

The Art of Talking So That People Will Listen: Getting Through to Family, Friends, and Business Associates
by P.W. Swets

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense
by S. H. Elgin

Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most
by Douglas Stone

Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life
by Marshall Rosenberg