A ‘difficult person’? Really?

Dr Mike Talbot Articles

I am increasingly coming across situations, particularly in workplace mediations, where some kind of label or diagnosis has unfortunately been planted onto one or both of the people in dispute.


We frequently hear ‘High Conflict Person(ality)’ or ‘Difficult Person’, but it can even be ‘Sociopath’, ‘Narcissist’, or ‘Obsessive’ that gets coined by the mediation referrer or by one of the disputing parties. These labels, which I find are used quite casually and inaccurately, are simplifications of quite complex breakdowns in interaction, and we should take care in using them.

So my first question would be, is it helpful to use these labels or diagnoses at all?  Well, I say‘possibly’, but with a few conditions:

  • Vernacular Labels
    The more vernacular labels like ‘Difficult Person’ or ‘High Conflict Personality’ are rarely helpful. We can all be difficult at times, especially when under stress, involved in conflict, or in some other fear-inducing situation. I don’t think any of us was born this way. Be forgiving, and recognise that nobody actually wants to be any of these things.   


  • Disempowerment
    The diagnostic categories that get thrown around are unhelpful when we use them to stereotype people, to disempower them, or to deny their humanity. Nobody deserves to be known by a label that is essentially a set of symptoms. Steer clear of the whole labelling thing unless you apply it in a supportive and ethical way.


  • Use Labels Correctly
    Don’t use any label if you don’t know what it means. I cringe at some of the comments that I hear such as, ‘Oh, I’m a bit OCD’, or one that I heard recently: ‘I’m paranoid about crossing busy roads’. People with a narcissistic style are not ‘…in love with themselves’, quite the opposite; ‘Antisocial’ is a very specific term, meaning something similar to ‘Sociopath’. It doesn’t mean that you eat alone or regularly decline your invitation to the Christmas party.


  • Supportive Categorisation
    OK, as mediators, it is helpful if we understand the patterns of someone’s social interactions (their personality style, if you like) so that we can try to understand what drives them to interact how they do. When working with conflict, take people as they are, but if you are going to categorise people’s way of being, it should only be as a means to support and improve the quality of interaction that they have with others.

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And my second question would be, ‘What leads us all to adopt these different personality styles?’ Well, as a mediator who has come from the psychotherapy profession, I like to try and draw on lessons that I learned from twenty years of private gestalt therapy practice.

One such lesson comes from an eminent gestalt psychotherapist, Fritz Perls, who put it well when he described people’s behaviour as, ‘…a frightened attempt to get their needs met’. I feel that this is particularly true when we are in conflict and/or under great pressure: disputes cause us to feel afraid, and often stem from us being deprived of something that is important to us (esteem, money, dignity, goods, status, employment). We do whatever we need to in order to protect ourselves in these situations, to hang on to what we have got, and to minimise our sense of losing or being humiliated.

The style in which each of us does this could attract a label. So, when someone feels attacked and needs to protect themselves, when they feel their trust has been betrayed, and when they struggle to have empathy with others as a consequence, their style might veer towards ‘sociopathic’. When someone’s sense of esteem and pride has taken a knock, or when they feel blamed and disparaged, they can get taken over by the need to restore their status and sense of entitlement. This could get labelled ‘narcissistic’. None of this is about us being ‘difficult’, but says more about people’s ‘…frightened attempt…’ to restore their sense of esteem and self-worth in the midst of a situation that is difficult.

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And my third question would be, ‘So, as mediators, when might we apply a diagnosis to someone in a way that enlightens how we could better work with them?’ And I would like to answer that one with reference to a diagnosis that is often misunderstood or overlooked: that of Autistic Spectrum Disorder. I have quite a lot to say about that, so I will save it for the next blog post.