George Bernard Shaw observed, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it”. 

Dealing with difficult people can be like wrestling with pigs.

But we don’t have to wrestle; we can listen and talk instead.

We can choose not to go in the sty. 


Clients and opponents, and sometimes fellow workers, can demand our time, attention, and compliance.

Sometimes it’s appropriate to give it; sometimes, not.

When it is appropriate we can:


Listen …

… to them.

We can give more time to enable them to feel heard.

This on its own can go a long way to diffusing aggression.


Be open, 

subject to the standard professional duty of confidence.

Transparency in the way that we relate to others can remove a sense that we have something hidden up our sleeve.

Playing cards close to the chest for as long as possible is embedded in litigation culture. 


Be assertive

Although she was nervous about the meeting, this worked for Beth.

It provides a sense of agency and causes the other person to see that we’re taking the initiative and being proactive.

It also provides a stronger structure to the relationship.

In psychoanalytic terms it enables one person to feel ‘held’ or ‘contained’.

The pictures here are of a mother holding a baby, providing physical security, and soaking up (‘containing’) a baby’s cries, mirroring its discomfort, and helping it to reprocess its own otherwise unmanageable feelings.

And sometimes difficult people can come across as toddlers throwing a tantrum.



If it’s difficult to be assertive, try this breathing exercise.

Your heart may be pounding when you anticipate confrontation, but this may help to ground you.

Once you’ve done it a few times, you should be able to reduce the process to just a few seconds.


Be clear

Manage the expectations of the other person.

For example, if it’s not possible for work to be done within the timescale demanded, make this clear and explain why.


Be reasonable

The issue is the issue; the issue is not me or you.


Stay calm

(As much as possible.)

‘A soft answer turns away wrath’.


Ride the wave

The picture is of a surfer.

There may be chaos around but we can learn ways to come out unscathed.

Surfing can be scary but it can also be exhilarating.



Mentalising, thinking about what the other person may be thinking, feeling, or aiming to achieve in situations where we feel particularly anxious or conflicted will help.

Wondering “Why is this idiot being an idiot with me?” gives a different perspective to the one-to-one conflict.

Bullies almost always feel bullied.

They are simply displacing the aggression onto someone who they perceive to be lower in the pecking order and more vulnerable.

Be curious about what might be tormenting the tormentor.


Adopt other methods of communication

If the person continues to be impossible to deal with, maybe have somebody else speak to them, if this is possible.

If the person tries to take a more informal line of communication by phone calls or email, revert to more formalised correspondence and by implication let them know that you are happy for others to see it (for example a supervisor or a judge).

Maybe the other person’s attempt to criticise you stems from their own fear of criticism?




(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)

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