Why Is He So Difficult? (How to Work With Prickly People)

July 20, 2021


Stacey heard the phone ring and routinely glanced at her computer screen to check the caller ID before answering the call. A sense of regret interrupted her thoughts as she recognized the name - it was Frank. She hesitated for a moment as she considered allowing the call to route to voice mail. He always seemed to have a complaint and tested her patience every time he called.

"He's probably upset," she thought, "about the new process for monitoring expense reports."

Stacey took her responsibility of protecting her boss from unnecessary calls seriously. She answered the call, "Good morning. HighPro Systems. This is …."

"This new policy is ludicrous," he bellowed, "I want to talk to Margaret!"

Every staff has one (or maybe four) of those individuals that disrupt the team's rhythm and create tension in the relationships. Most of them don't mean to be a problem; they're overwhelmed by the changing landscape of their responsibilities. Others, however, have appointed themselves to be the company curmudgeon. (I call them Prickly People).

It is confusing as to why these people are so difficult. Each one has their reasons and experiences that influence their prickliness. Let's take a quick look at the differences and then some tips on managing the conversations with them.

The Four Most Common Types of Prickly People:

  • Reluctant - Fearful, passive, doesn't contribute to conversations, peace-keeper.
  • Resistant - Negative, complainer, recruiter to their cause, and protective of the past.
  • Rebellious - Explosive, bossy, my way or no way.
  • Refuter - Argumentative, contradicting, opinionated, pessimistic.

One person might appear to be open to new ideas, but approaches change reluctantly. Another individual seems to be on board with the new processes, but their resistance shows up in chronic complaining. Then you have the person who talks about things needing to change, yet their rebellious attitude pushes people away when they act independently and recklessly. And, of course, there is that one who displays their displeasure with everything by expressing their opinion and refuting that they need any help.

Quick tips on how to approach the different types of Prickly People:

Refuter — It is better to have a private conversation with these folks than engage with them in a group setting. Consider having a third party involved in the discussion. Ask them to come prepared with strategic alternatives and ideas that can help improve processes and build momentum.

Rebellious — Give them time to talk. Often the reason they are grumpy is that they feel that no one values them. Listening to them can help defuse the anger. Be kind and assertive as you define how their involvement is vital to moving forward. These folks frequently respond well to someone who "has a little backbone" and stands firm.

Resistant — Ask them to discuss the reasons for their hesitation. Help them focus on the objective data, the factual needs for change, and the risks of failing to change.

Reluctant — Give them quality information and don't rush them. They need time for contemplation as they adjust to new ideas and responsibilities.

You can improve your interactions with your Prickly People when you start by seeking to understand the reason for their behavior and then respond with the appropriate approach.


Steven Iwersen, CSP, is the founder and President of Aurora Pointe, LLC, a leadership development company. He is a professional speaker and trainer that specializes in helping organizations manage change and difficult transitions. He is the author of The Porcupine Principles: How to Move Prickly People to Preferred Outcomes. He is also the host of VIP Exchange, a weekly video cast program. Visit for more ideas and information.

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