It seems as if most of our day is taken up dealing with difficult people, this is not the reality for most people. For most, I would say it is less than five percent of your day and more probably much less depending on your role. Of course if you’re on the complaints desk it will be higher, but you’re there because you can deal with it.

The problem is a very small number of people, over a very short period of time, take up a huge amount of our emotional and psychological energy, leaving us drained when dealing with all our other, more pleasant clients.

Let’s explore the reasons behind such behaviour and what we can do to minimise its affect on us. We are not exploring any behaviour caused by mental illness or substance abuse (that is the topic for a different article). Here we are referring to, for want of a better term, ‘normal’ behaviour. In this case the behaviour is ‘normal’ but ‘unacceptable’.

There are two things we must remember when dealing with these situations. The first is that it is not the person who is bad or unacceptable, it is their behaviour. This helps us to deal with the person more effectively. The second and fundamentally important thing to remember is that it is not about you. I know it feels like it is and it sounds like it is, but it is not. You should not take it personally!

It is not just the poor behaviour of customers either, sometimes other staff can make unrealistic demands and be quite unreasonable making our lives miserable.

Why do customers behave poorly? Well naturally there are many reasons (human beings are complicated things!). Immaturity is an obvious contributing factor, but it may also have something to do with their own stress and pressure, their lack of familiarity with your organisations processes, pre existing issues or a combination of all.

I believe it often has to do with unrealised expectations. They were expecting a certain chain of events when dealing with you (or perhaps in life in general) and those expectations have not been met. They don’t have to be reasonable expectations either.

Remember that any behaviour we currently exhibit must have once served us a purpose. Believe it or not, that purpose is almost certainly NOT to annoy you (that is just an outcome of the behaviour). For most people behaviour is about achieving our desired outcomes; to gain attention, to gain special consideration, improving ones standing in a group or simply to get a reaction.

In some cases we may actually be unconsciously contributing to the negative behaviour. Consider how we react when a known troublemaker enters the room. Does our tone and body language change sending a signal that we are anticipating their negative behaviour? This is known as collusion – we expect them to misbehave and they are happy to comply. If behaviour is designed to evoke a reaction and it succeeds, it will be repeated.

We want them to stop misbehaving, but the truth is we can’t actually change the behaviour of another person. The good news is we do have control of our own behaviour, so we can change how we respond, react and interact with others.

Here are a few strategies that we have control of that will help deal with many situations. It is not an exhaustive list, and every situation is different. Although this may appear to be an oversimplification of some of the situations we face, the list may represent a starting point:

  1. As mentioned before, if behaviour achieves its objective it is likely to be repeated. So we need to change the way we react to difficult behaviour. If we always respond the same way to a situation, we will always arrive at the same outcome. The key here is to remember not to take it personally. Breathe, think and then respond.
  2. If we ignore behaviour that has been successful in the past, it may get worse before it gets better. We need to be prepared for an initial escalation, but hold our ground until it subsides. Naturally if the behaviour is potentially dangerous or violent in any way, seek immediate professional help.
  3. If behaviour is followed by an outcome or consequence the person doesn’t want, it will begin to decrease. Working within the organisation’s policies and procedures we need to predetermine how inappropriate behaviour will be dealt with. It cannot be an idol threat it must be something we are willing and able to enact. Don’t forget, positive consequences are a powerful way to encourage positive behaviour as well.
  4. Allowing poor behaviour to continue is the equivalent of giving the individual permission to continue behaving that way. We need to take action in order to encourage more appropriate behaviours.

We cannot let the momentary behaviour of a few individuals, be they staff or customers, dictate how the rest of our day will unfold. We should focus on the positive behaviour of the majority and take appropriate action with anyone who acts outside acceptable boundaries of behaviour. Remember their behaviour is their responsibility, and our reaction is our responsibility. There are consequences for both.


Article by Adam Le Good, Director of Fundamental Training and Development

Fundamental Training and Development run a wide variety of leadership and management programs, including topics around programs around dealing with the difficult behaviour of staff and customers. In addition, we have a program to help staff deal with customer behaviour that has been impacted by mental health issues and substance abuse.

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© 2021 Fundamental Training and Development

Fundamental Training and Development offers a range training on this topic. All our programs can be tailored to your specific needs. If you have any questions, or comments, or if you would like discuss your learning and development needs, please contact Adam Le Good at Fundamental Training and Development on 0412 101 115 or