Tips to Manage Difficult People in Your Workplace


Over your career as a lawyer, you’ve probably experienced difficult interactions with colleagues, staff, clients, adversaries and court personnel. The exponential increase in texting, posting and communicating on-line means that many of these interactions with difficult counterparts have the potential to become even more toxic. This discussion focuses on utilizing tools to handle those difficult interactions, particularly when modern communication technology is used as a weapon by a difficult person.

Following are insights gleaned from a presentation given by Lani Nelson-Zlupko, Ph.D. of LNZ Consulting in Wilmington, Delaware, who specializes in change management. Consider her guidance about how to best prepare and respond when technology is misused or abused in interactions with attorneys and non-attorneys, whether adversaries, colleagues, co-workers or clients, along with a few examples from my own and a colleague’s experiences.

Often, difficult people impose undue burdens on others with:

  • unanticipated or unwelcome interactions
  • breaches of standard protocols
  • unreasonable expectations or falsely urgent deadlines
  • flammable language
  • and/or personal attacks.

At times, even you can become a difficult person and lash out when you are overwhelmed, preoccupied or distressed in your own life, but you do not make it a practice in ordinary interactions.

Difficult people impact you when you allow them to:

  • decrease your professional confidence
  • cause you to lose focus on your work goals and priorities
  • increase your stress, anxiety and/or depression
  • or cause you to respond unprofessionally to them.

When difficult people dominate a workplace, it is natural to feel burned out or want to flee from the stress you perceive.

You may project your good intentions and aspirations onto others, even though they do not necessarily share the same outlook. Some naively believe that they can turn around the offending difficult person. Alternatively, they absorb the beat-down received from the difficult person, and then privately stew about it.

Dr. Zlupko offers much better options.

The goal is to manage yourself and how you react when confronted by a difficult encounter. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and resentful, or even to blame oneself when drawn into a toxic interaction. But when there is a toxic interaction or trigger, you should step back and pause before responding to that trigger. You should drop the urgency or the feeling that you have driving to an immediate response. Take time to reflect. When you do that, you can de-escalate your own emotions in response to a toxic interaction or trigger, and thereby stay off the emotional roller coaster that the difficult person attempts to impose.

Create the needed time and space to reflect by using de-escalation phrases. For example, I’ll consider this or I’ll get back to you when….

When you reflect, make a candid assessment of the toxic interaction. What is the situation that needs attention? Who is involved? What is your role? What needs to happen next, and what is the reasonable timeline?

Your goal is to shift from an adversarial or toxic interaction to rational problem solving. Use the facts presented to achieve the mutual objective(s) and eliminate the personal or ad hominem attacks from them (and by you). Attorneys strive to always have civil, professional interactions with others.


Additional helpful, rational problem-solving phrases are: I hear you, and … or That is interesting, yet have you considered…. Challenging the difficult person directly usually escalates toxicity. Acknowledging them, and then moving forward toward a mutual objective is your primary aim. Above all, stay calm. Show you are curious, and not furious. Do not allow the difficult person to cause harm to you or your professional reputation.

Technology did not create difficult people, but it has multiplied their weapons arsenal. Examples traverse from mild infractions to downright criminal abuse using technology to harass others.

Of course, you do not send e-mail messages using all uppercase letters. Recipients interpret such an e-mail as the equivalent of yelling at them, a mild example of how technology may be perceived to cause harm, whether or not harm was intended.

Messaging (e-mail or texting) may be used to bombard opponents or subordinates with so many messages that the recipient cannot possibly keep up. You may attempt to respond immediately to incoming messages, but you cannot and should not react to such an onslaught. A former colleague, who received numerous daily e-mail blitzes from an adversary, defused the situation by responding to that adversary once a week by a formal letter, hand-carried by messenger to ensure receipt. His solution was classic, rational problem solving. He took away the urgency of the e-mail blitzes, yet still maintained a professional interaction.

My experience with one litigation adversary was problematic because he never answered his phone, resulting in a full mailbox that would not accept new messages. He also never responded to e-mails or letters. He used technology to block communications needed to resolve a matter. After months of failed communication, the issue was escalated to the court.

Another litigation adversary blocked incoming calls to his phone from my firm’s phone, leading me to pursue the case strictly through email correspondence.

Whether technology is helpful or being abused also may depend on an organization’s culture. In many businesses, employees share electronic calendars to schedule meetings. It is incumbent on the employee to block off time slots when they are unavailable, to maintain control of their daily schedule and prevent others from setting last-minute meetings and calls. Dr. Nelson-Zlupko points out, “It is no one’s job to set or protect your boundaries, but you.” When the calendaring and task functions are not shared openly, associate attorneys and staff may require a mechanism to resolve scheduling conflicts and work assignment priorities coming at them from multiple superiors.

Sometimes technology, such as social media, blurs the line between social life and work life. For example, attorneys may post about their own private issue or, perhaps unwittingly, about a client’s private issue, exposing them to embarrassment or worse when this information is weaponized by a difficult person.

Separately, hotheaded comments in e-mails or in on-line posts are prone to being found, copied, reposted and forwarded to the person berated in a way that face-to face comments between two people would not. Once an embarrassing or unethical communication has been made public, arguing that the access was obtained illegally or by mistake is not an effective response.  

Most shocking are instances reported where attorneys harmed others by using technology. Indeed, in October 2022, a Manhattan federal jury found a fired K&L Gates LLP partner guilty of criminal cyberstalking in a digital harassment campaign targeting former colleagues at the law firm. The attorney sent thousands of threats by text and e-mail that caused one person at the firm to move from New York to another state, and another to upgrade their home security system and switch parking locations out of fear for their own safety.


When interacting with a difficult person, whether or not the interaction is amplified by digital technology, use these proven methods to shift from an adversarial or toxic interaction to rational problem solving. Importantly, stop and think before responding. You can control your own emotions, stay calm and respond in an appropriate and professional manner. And, if it becomes necessary, you do not have to stay stuck in a toxic environment. You can seek assistance from others not embroiled in the toxicity; you can influence change; or, if truly necessary, you can withdraw or step away.


Patricia Smink Rogowski is an intellectual property attorney at Rogowski Law LLC in Wilmington, Delaware. She may be reached at [email protected].

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