Do you work with difficult people? Are they toxic? Is their behaviour unacceptable? Are you stressed out over it? Does the thought of engaging with that person(s) form a tiny knot in your stomach (even when you see an email with that name!)? It is safe to assume that all of us have experienced these types of people in our lives, be it at the workplace or outside of work, writes leadership coach and HR consultant Rabia Mirza.

Difficult people and difficult situations are part of life. It is almost impossible to not encounter challenging people. No doubt, we are challenging for other people too! People are different and for very good reasons.

Personalities are formed as a result of our upbringing, culture, region, belief system, family structure, ethnic background, education system and other reasons. If we were all the same, life would be very boring! This, however, does not mean that we cannot do something about people who constantly upset us and who constantly treat us with disrespect, especially in the workplace.

Most workplaces have codes of conducts and other policies such as anti-bullying policies, anti-harassment policies, dignity at work policy and grievance procedures. Despite these policies, there are other ways that you can personally tackle or at least try to tackle the situation and help yourself.

An effective way to deal with difficult people is to set boundaries with them.

Boundaries are necessary for healthy living and a healthy mind. Setting boundaries is about you. It does not excuse the other person's behaviour. It is about how you cope with the challenging situation.


  • The limit of what somebody considers to be acceptable behaviour;
  • A real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something;
  • The limit of a subject or principle.

Why you need healthy boundaries

  1. To manage your stress better
  2. To manage your mental wellbeing
  3. To build your resilience
  4. To increase your confidence levels
  5. To have a more fulfilling work life
  6. To decrease depletion of your energy levels
  7. To increase your energy levels
  8. To let others know how you would like to be treated (directly or indirectly)
  9. To let others know what is acceptable and what is not acceptable (directly or indirectly) to you
  10. To have better relationships with certain people
  11. To manage difficult situations in a better way.

How to set healthy boundaries

You need to identify your reality, know what you want instead, recognise your options and be willing to take action. Note that I make reference to ‘you’ rather than the other person(s). This goes back to my point above where I highlighted that establishing boundaries is about you and whether you choose to take action or not.

Below is a four-part action plan that you could adopt. Think back to a time when you had an encounter with a difficult person(s). Immerse yourself in that experience as you practise this four-part action plan. Do this exercise with a trusted friend or colleague if needed.

(1) Identify Your reality: This is your perception and not necessarily another person’s perception

  • What is happening right now/if you are reflecting on a past experience, what happened back then?
  • What do/did I see?
  • What do/did I hear?
  • What am/was I thinking?
  • What are/were my physical sensations? How does/did my body react? Do parts of your body get tense?
  • What emotions do/did I feel? (eg, anger, sadness, disappointment, guilt, shame, pain, fear, joy, passion, love);
  • What needs are/were not being met? (eg, freedom, communication, community, autonomy, power, respect, safety, psychological safety, stability, trust, competency, reliability, voice, friendship);
  • Do/did I create or amplify what actually happens/happened?

(2) Define your goal: What do you want instead of what is happening right now

  • What outcome do/would I want/have wanted?
  • What outcome do I want if the situation happens again?

(3) What other options do you have: Get creative and think outside your normal thinking

  • What could I have done differently?
  • What can I do differently next time?
  • What are my options?
  • What is in my control?
  • What can I influence?

(4) What will you do next in order to set healthy boundaries?

  • Do you have the power to create the result you want without asking for help or making a request?
  • Realistically, what will I do differently next time to attain my desired outcome? (eg, I will do.../I need to ask for help.../I need to make a request...);
  • How will I know I have set healthy boundaries?
  • Did I follow through on my own actions?
  • If the boundary has been violated, what will you do?

If your boundary work was successful, congratulations!

For boundary violations, your options could be:

  1. Repeat your request
  2. Try a different approach
  3. Make amends with the other person
  4. Do nothing, accept and let go.

Boundaries are necessary for healthy living and a healthy mind. Setting boundaries is about you. It does not excuse the other person's behaviour. It is about how you cope with the challenging situation.

Did any of the above content resonate with you? Have you gained a deeper understanding of how to set healthy boundaries with difficult people? Could adopting these tactics make your life easier? Could these tactics enhance morale in the workplace? 

Author: Rabia Mirza is an accredited leadership coach and HR consultant. She helps people managers develop their leadership skills and empower them to be a greater version of themselves. For more details, contact her at: 

(Source: *the online Cambridge dictionary.)