Enough! Stop Labeling Your Difficult People.

labeling peopleThe Negotiator.

The Complainer.

The Know-it-Alls, Whiners, and Fit-Throwers.

It seems, in an effort to simplify how to deal with challenging customers, co-workers, or employees, we are regularly encouraged to apply labels to various “difficult personality types.” At least once a day my Twitter feed includes a link to a blog post or management article trumpeting the “7 Difficult Personalities & How to Deal With Them.” Entire training programs have been built around helping participants recognize and understand a set of descriptive categories so they can then pick a corresponding coping strategy.

Managers aren’t immune either. Just the other day I followed a link to an article exploring various boss “types.” Among the styles the author identified were The Dictator, The Micromanager, and The Softie.


Like any other person subjected to a label, these are stereotypes. In addition to preventing actual discourse and understanding of the person, they empower the observer to make a one-dimensional values judgment. Such broad, sweeping generalizations only encourage assumption and discrimination.

Experts on conflict resolution advise that, above most everything else, a key first step is separating the person from the behavior.  In the face of people acting out, disagreeing, or simply acting in a way counter to what we think is appropriate, resist the urge to judge the person on the whole. Instead work to understand their interests and the forces at work upon them. These are the underlying motivations of a person’s positions, priorities, and behavior. The authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High, a seminal book on communication and leadership, understood this when they encouraged asking, in the face of conflict, “Why would a perfectly reasonable, well-intentioned person act this way?”

Labels let us off the hook. They give us permission to attribute problems to personality more than situational factors that we must work to understand and influence. They are lazy, short-sighted, and will exacerbate or preserve a conflicted state rather than contributing to it’s resolution.

I confess I was guilty of this earlier in my career. One of the first conflict resolution workshops I designed was called “Bullies, Brats, and Babies: Dealing with Difficult People.”  Catchy title, yes. But these labels actually ran counter to what the program was teaching, which was to not assume malice but instead spend the energy needed to truly understand and problem solve with the person in question.

That’s not to say that people can’t bully, or be “bratty,” or act like “babies.” But these are descriptions of behavior, not people. Avoid these intellectual shortcuts and you will most assuredly become more successful when you encounter conflict.

Now it’s your turn!  What are your thoughts? Have you ever been the victim of this kind of labeling by someone else? Ever pushed past your own assumptions to uncover a more complex person behind the label? Share your comments, stories, and questions in the comments box below!


1 thought on “Enough! Stop Labeling Your Difficult People.

  1. Great post Joe. You’re so right about learning how to separate the person from the behavior. Once you label someone, makes that key skill almost impossible!!!

    Thanks for writing about this important topic.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s