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Dealing with Difficult People


Published: 24 November 2015

Cover image for article: Dealing with Difficult People

Difficult people are everywhere in the world of the nurse. It isn’t just patients who can be difficult, either; families, doctors and co-workers are often a significant source of stress too. With all of the difficult personalities that go into making up a working medical facility, nurses need to know how to navigate the waters of prickly relationships while remaining professional and retaining their sanity.

What should a nurse do when confronted with a difficult person? It is best to remain calm and cool while dealing with the person carefully. To use an apt metaphor, the skills required are akin to defusing a bomb. If you say the wrong thing, the situation with a difficult person can escalate very quickly. You need to focus on staying professional and being assertive, rather than aggressive. This also means enduring personal attacks without losing your cool.

Here are just a few strategies for dealing with difficult people as a nurse.

Retain Professionalism

Nurses always need to maintain their professionalism when dealing with doctors, patients, families and co-workers. This doesn’t mean they can’t let off steam in the breakroom or with a trusted friend, but on the floor professionalism is expected of a nurse. You may feel like the other person is walking all over you, but your calm, professional attitude may just show them how idiotic they are being.

Professionalism is required in these situations, but what exactly does it mean? To be a professional means not to forget yourself. You aren’t in the street or arguing with your kids. You are a representative of your facility and nursing in general. That means you shouldn’t raise your voice, you shouldn’t attempt to ridicule the person you are sparring with and you shouldn’t have the conversation in public.

Professionals never attack. They listen. They try to find ways of amicably solving the problem so that all parties are satisfied. If there is no solution, a professional finds ways to make the difficult person see that there is no other course of action. In the real world, you may lose your temper, say things you shouldn’t and storm away. Professionals can’t do this.

Be Assertive, Not Aggressive

Be Assertive, Not Aggressive with difficult people

Assertive means that you get your point across, no matter how difficult, in a calm yet direct way.

Some nursing schools are now teaching students how to be assertive. Assertive means that you get your point across, no matter how difficult, in a calm yet direct way. When you are assertive, you can tell a doctor that you don’t agree with their order. You can even tell the patient that non-compliance is only going to make their situation worse. Although you always remain professional, assertiveness allows you to say what needs to be said to a person who is being difficult.

The problem with assertiveness is that it can sometimes slip into aggression. Aggression is the point where you lose your temper, raise your voice and insist on your way. Most difficult people are aggressive. But aggression will not help you to deal with aggressive people. It is a fine line, but one that can be easily recognised.

To be assertive, a nurse needs to disconnect from their emotions. Emotions will make the situation explode, so staying calm is a primary facet of assertiveness. You still get to say what the difficult person needs to hear, but you say it in a way that doesn’t ignite a further argument.

Avoid Personal Attacks

It goes without saying that you should not resort to personal attacks against a difficult person. Attacks like these are both aggressive and unprofessional.

If you feel yourself losing control, on the brink of swearing or saying something about the person, walk away. Let someone else step in, because if you are not calm you risk making this situation worse.

Most nurses are not short-sighted enough to hurl a personal attack at a difficult person, but sometimes the heat of the moment can make us say things we wouldn’t normally say. If you feel yourself losing control, on the brink of swearing or saying something about the person, walk away. Let someone else step in, because if you are not calm you risk making this situation worse.

Another aspect of personal attacks is when the difficult person starts hurling them at you. They can call you stupid, worthless and the ‘worst nurse they have ever encountered’. This is a time when you may feel the need to hurl the insults back, but that is exactly what the difficult person wants. They want a screaming match, but you cannot give it to them.

Don’t take personal attacks to heart. This is a person who is reacting out of anger and it really has nothing to do with you. It is more about their feelings and their problems, and not a reflection of you or your work. When you stay calm in the face of a difficult person’s anger, you can often talk them down and resolve the situation before it gets out of control.


Portrait of Lynda Lampert
Lynda Lampert

Lynda is a registered nurse with three years experience on a busy surgical floor in a city hospital. She graduated with an Associates degree in Nursing from Mercyhurst College Northeast in 2007 and lives in Erie, Pennsylvania in the United States. In her work, she took care of patients post operatively from open heart surgery, immediately post-operatively from gastric bypass, gastric banding surgery and post abdominal surgery. She also dealt with patient populations that experienced active chest pain, congestive heart failure, end stage renal disease, uncontrolled diabetes and a variety of other chronic, mental and surgical conditions. See Educator Profile

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