Business Series Podcast Ep.9 – How to Deal with Difficult People with Robin Charbit

How to Deal with Difficult People with Robin Charbit

How to Deal with Difficult People with Robin Charbit

In this episode, Ankush speaks with Robin Charbit. Some of what they discuss include:

– Robin’s definition of “Difficult People”

– How do we effectively deal with difficult people

– A case study of a divisional CEO who struggled with his boss and turned the relationship around

– A 2nd case study of dealing with a difficult customer service representative in a store

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Full Transcript


[00:00:00.00] Ankush: Welcome to this episode of the Business Series. Today I’m joined by Robin Charbit, and we’re going to be talking about how to deal with difficult people. Robin works for Insight Principles it’s a business consultancy that helps senior leaders in large companies produce truly remarkable results, they accomplish this by sharing some essential information on how the human mind operates that allows people to see how to more easily be at their best without effort, and Robin’s someone I met several years ago, and I’m very pleased that he’s agreed to be in this show with us today. Welcome Robin.


[00:00:44.26] Robin: Hi Kush, thank you so much for having me on the show.


[00:00:46.29] Ankush: Thank you for joining us, thank you for joining us. I’m interested in this topic I know that other people would be interested too, for those who don’t know Robin. Robin has co-authored a wonderful book called ‘Invisible Power,’ and one of the chapters is on dealing with difficult people, so I know this is a topic that you have some experience and knowledge about. Maybe I just want to open up this episode with what’s your definition, if you like of difficult people?


[00:01:14.18] Robin: Well, difficult can mean a range of things and I think it goes from the benign person who goes on and on talking to you without realising that you don’t have time, right through to the person who takes actions that are disruptive or even malicious. So I make that broader definition of difficult. And then the other thing that I’d say, is that this is generic to life, we all have our own examples, me too. They might be a family member, a colleague or a person that lives next door and specifically in my case, in what the book was written about it is the world of business. It’s a little anecdote like, I can’t remember who it was that said it to me, but one business leader once said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek Kush, he said, “business would be simple if it wasn’t for the people.” And even though it was a joke, I think there’s a grain of truth, if you look at how most companies operate, there’s a variety of people who could be either nudged towards or firmly lumped into the category of difficult people. So, that’s why we wrote a chapter on the book, because it seems to be relevant to most people.


[00:02:31.19] Ankush: I’m sure a lot of people can imagine right now that there is someone or some people in their world, whether it’s their business or personal world, and today we’re very much talking about the business world that comes across as difficult or challenging, and so how do we go around dealing, communicating, working effectively with those people?


[00:02:54.27] Robin: Well I’d split the dealing into… the dealing problem into two halves. The first half, what’s going on with you, and the second half, what’s going on with them? So if we tackle the first half, the you part, this is what I would suggest: if you’ve noticed that even the people who you consider to be difficult, who you might say many people think are difficult, you can almost always find someone in their lives Kush, who does not find them difficult. So how come? If it’s the same person, but they’re seen differently by different people, where does that variability come from?

Now the obvious answer is it has to come from the people seeing them, so that’s why we start with the you part of dealing with difficult people, there’s a lot going on in you that actually can shed light on and can be helpful. And the fundamental thing that really underpins difficult people is in fact any situation in life, is that most people don’t realise that we’re all crafting our experiences in our mind. So yes there is a person out there, and yes they’re doing something, but whether they’re difficult, whether they’re quirky, whether they’re different or any other adjective you might consider, the adjective is actually happening in your mind. Now this is mostly not a conscious process, but it is the one that’s actually running the show. So I’m sure you’ve been with people and maybe your listeners have been with people, and they hearing someone talk about someone difficult, and at the same time they were realising, ‘well, I don’t see them that way,’ so the way you see people, the way you think about people is, in large part, what determines how difficult they are.

Now, when you start to realise that, that’s where they ray of hope or the beam of light starts to sort of illuminate, because you start to see that the difficulty is actually occurring in you and depending on you. So I’ll give you a very simple example, anybody who’s got children will relate to this: when I’m tired, when I’m worn out, when I’ve had a busy week, my children might appear more difficult to me than when I’m relaxed. So on Friday night, a teenager grinding on at me about something they want to do and they need permission for, will look very different on Saturday morning or Sunday morning when I’m really relaxed. They might be doing exactly the same thing, they might be grinding at me, but on Sunday morning I’ll think it’s cute how a teenager thinks they can get away by being petulant, or I’ll wonder how complex it is to be a teenager and maybe grinding on me is actually a symptom of something going on with them that I’m curious about.

So the minute you see the sort of the you factor, it sort of points to a possibility that you could actually have different thinking about that person. Because if everybody’s having different thinking, well why couldn’t you have different thinking?

Now, what’s going on with difficult people, is that you’ve got into a bit of a rut, and you’ve got, sort of, if you want, stale and fixed in how you think about that person, but the mechanism is the same with everything else in your life. It’s how you think, so if you can see that it’s you having thinking, then all of a sudden, possibility exists that you might think about them in a different way. As soon as you see that you are at the origin of your experience, well then maybe other experiences might be possible, and something can shift, and when something shifts in you, it’s not only helpful for you, it can be helpful for the other person.

I think there’s an American comedian, his name was Flip Wilson, and the only reason I know about him is that he said something really helpful, he said, “what you see is what you get.” So if you see someone as difficult, well guess what you get? If you see someone as curious and strange, well that’s what you get. So the first part of dealing with difficult people is to see your part of the equation, your part in seeing them as a difficult person. Now the second sort of half of the difficult person, is what’s going on with them, because if someone has driven over your lawn and crashed your flowers and it’s the fifth time it’s happened and you’ve pointed it out that they should be careful how they drive their car, that’s just not your thinking, your roses are getting trashed, or your mail is getting thrown away, because they hate getting it in their mailbox.

So it’s not like difficult is without some substance, there is something going on out there and then. Now, if you understand the first thing I said which was that people are living in the experience of their own thinking, it stands to reason that that’s also happening for the difficult person, and if you understand that thought creates reality, well, clearly their difficult behaviour is coming from the thinking they’re doing. So if you want, they’re having thoughts that make them do the things they’re doing and you’re having thoughts that interpret that and make it look difficult.

Now, if you can see that’s going on, you can start to wonder what might that thinking be, because this is sort of the harsh reality of it, if you had the thinking that they had Kush, you’d be the difficult person. People don’t get out of bed and say, “well I wonder what I’m going to be like today, or maybe I’m going to be sweet and nice with people, but if they don’t have that special on at the cafeteria, the one I really love, well then I’m going to be difficult for the rest of the day.”

People just wake up, and thinking flows through their head, and depending what that thinking is, that’s what they act on. So if someone’s having insecure thinking or they’re having thoughts that life is a competition and the only way they’ll win and survive is to dominate other people, or they feel that they got a raw deal and the rest of the world including you are responsible for it. If that’s the thinking going through the head, you can start to see why they might behave that way.

Now, we’re not saying that’s okay, people should be able to do what they want. What we’re saying is that the more you understand what’s going on in their thinking, or in their world, the more likely you are to be intelligent about what to do about it. So it’s a bit like going to a foreign country, if you’ve never been to that country and you don’t know how it operates, what’s your likelihood of being effective in that country? And what most people do when they’re in a foreign country is they inform themselves and get to understand what the country is and how it functions, so that then they can be intelligent, and so they way to look at all people, not just difficult people is, we’re all living in our own country. You’re living in Kush land, I’m living in Robin land and unless I spend time understanding Kush land, how am I going to be effective in that country? So, would it be useful to give you a real life example?


[00:10:21.06] Ankush: Yeah please do that I think that would really make this come to life and help people to get their head around the subject.


[00:10:27.22] Robin: So I was working with a CEO of a division, and let’s call him Jim, and he reported up to a member of the executive committee, because it was a conglomerate, so all these different divisions, each division had their CEO.

The thing you need to know about Jim, is that he didn’t suffer fools. If he thought you weren’t very clever, if he thought you weren’t very sharp, he would not have very much patience for you, and he would usually let you know this. Now, the universe has a sense of humour, so Jim’s direct contact on the executive board was someone who didn’t understand his business and for whom Jim didn’t have a lot of time. In fact he used to openly say that the guy was an idiot. So you can imagine every time Jim went into a conversation with, let’s call his boss Eric, so every time Jim went into a conversation with Eric, what was going on in Jim’s head? Jim would be thinking, ‘oh yeah, I’ve got to deal with this idiot again, the guy who’s clueless. I’ve got to report to him how I’m doing my business, and the guy’s got no idea.’

Now, as part of my coaching relationship with Jim, Eric would come up, and my standard reply to Jim was, ‘look, Eric’s just in Eric land, and if you could understand a bit more about Eric land, you might get a bit more intelligent.’ And then Jim would give me a whole bunch of crap about how, why does he have to love Eric, why does he have to like him… and I said, this isn’t about liking or loving, this is about being effective. You are currently incompetent in Eric land Jim, and it’s a major impediment to how you try to work and what you’re trying to get done. Jim grumbled and I was wanting him to be a saint and love everybody and I kept repeating that wasn’t the point.

Anyway, a while later I had a very interesting conversation with Jim where he tells me that he had a meeting with Eric, and the thing to know about the background is that Jim’s business was what you’d call a market-facing business in that it deals directly with the public, with customers, whereas a lot of the rest of the conglomerate was more of an industrial complex, and it was more a B2B business-to-business world, so Jim’s business was a bit different. The net result was that Jim’s business had the largest advertising budget of all of the companies in that conglomerate and it was a bone of contention that every year someone would get on his case about spending too much in advertising, and sure enough it was time to look a budgets and performance, and Eric had brought up in this conversation how he really was concerned about the amount of advertising that was being spent in Jim’s business. And he wanted to cut it to improve the profit. Now, for some reason Jim remembered his conversation with me and so he said, “Eric, do you want me to cut my advertising budget, or do you want me to improve my EBIT (earnings before interest in tax)?” And Eric’s reply was, “well isn’t it the same thing?” And Jim listened to that and had this insight, if you want, that Eric came from a B2B world, where you didn’t spend any money on advertising, if you’re selling a basic raw material or a basic commodity, you don’t have to advertise it, where if you’re selling in a B2C world, you have to.

So he said, “Eric, do you understand the role of advertising in my business?” And Eric said, “well what do you mean?” He said, “well I produce new products a bit like coca-cola does, and then unless I advertise, no-one knows that I produce that new product, so if coca-cola came out with a new drink and didn’t tell anybody, what’s the likelihood people would buy it other than they happen to see it on the shelf? So I have 10 years of data Eric, that shows for every $1 that I spend on advertising, I make $5 of earnings, of profit, because more people get to know my product and therefore I sell more of it,” and Eric said, “so you mean if you cut back on advertising the EBIT, the earnings can get worse?” And Jim said, “yes, because less people will buy my product.” And Eric said, “well we don’t do that… okay okay look, well don’t touch the advertising, let’s look at some other way to improve earning.” So they had a completely different conversation.

Now when Jim told me about this he said it was really interesting because the minute he asked me to cut my advertising, where I went in my head is here we go again, I’m working for an idiot, but then I remembered your comment Robin about, well why did he say that? And then as I explored it with him, I got to understood, he just didn’t understand my world. So I explained my world and then things moved on, so, I don’t think I’m ever going to go on holiday with Eric, I don’t think we’re ever going to be best friends, but, it was a much better conversation, and in fact at the end of the meeting, Eric said, “Jim, this is probably the best conversation we’ve ever had.” So isn’t it interesting how Jim changed his view, and his thinking shifted, and Eric appeared different and in fact, not only did Eric appear different, Eric felt that the conversation was different.

So, the first point about understanding their world is that, you can become a lot more intelligent in their world. So you can shift people from being difficult to being not difficult, because, as you inform them about what’s going on because you now understand their world, they can become more intelligent. Now, whenever I tell this story Kush, I get people say, “well, yeah, yeah, yes, but, that’s a misunderstanding, they weren’t communicating well, Jim had to get off his high horses, but what about those people who really are difficult, there’s people who, it doesn’t matter what you do, they’re a pain in the butt, they’re disruptive, they’re aggressive. Well the answer’s actually pretty similar.

First of all, remember I mentioned, people don’t choose to be that way, people don’t decide to be difficult, so you gotta realise that the person who’s really being that really difficult person, it’s again just because of their thinking. I’ll give you another example, a lovely guy I worked with, he was a rainmaker; so someone who could bring in sales and cut deals like nobody’s business, but he was surrounded by dead bodies, because people would get killed off because he was just so nasty. And he was nasty, he would demean people in public, he would fire people, he would not give people promotions, and he was borderline HR-reportable offensive. I mean that was his MO, and the reason we got to meet him is they wanted to keep his talent, but they wanted to stop all the collateral damage, so they sent him to us, and we do what we do with all the people we coach which is we share the understanding that I’ve alluded to about how the mind works, and this is what we find out about Jack.

When Jack was a young family guy, one of his children was tragically killed, Jack almost fell apart, in fact him and his wife had a really tough time. What came out was that Jack had been quite religious, he believed in a universal force, he believed in good, he believed in some force behind life, and when that happened to him it almost destroyed him. He concluded that that wasn’t true. He concluded that the world sucked, and that he really shouldn’t give a damn about anybody, because life was unfair, and a horrible place. Now if you have that thinking going on in your head Kush, guess how you treat people?

Now it didn’t look to him like it was his thinking, it looked to him like that was the world. Now, what has happened to me over the years Kush and this is what I would suggest to all of your listeners is possible, is that when I see the thinking going on in someone’s head, when I see the logic of it in their eyes, when I see the life it gives them, I find myself having a lot of compassion for them. Now that doesn’t mean I’m stupid in front of them, it doesn’t mean I let them walk all over me when I see that they didn’t get out of bed that morning and decide to be like that, they just got stuck on a thought that they made up, that it looks real to them. And then my journey on my job, if that’s what I’m trying to get done and I need to do something with that person, my job then becomes, “how do I help that person get out from under that thinking?” Now, when that becomes my stance, rather than resisting them, I tend to find that intelligent things show up. So, with this individual, when he came to see us and he was, “there’s no problem with me”, “what’s this complaint about?”, “people are just too sensitive, they need to get over themselves.” We just got incredibly kind with him, until the point he finally shared what was going on and when he shared what was going on with him about his world view, it became very easy for me to then start exploring with him whether that was accurate or not, and what happened at the end of the process we ran is that he realised that was just a conclusion he had made in the depth of despair and sadness, he also got to see how it was really messing up life. And even though it did not leave him with an explanation of why a child of his died, he got to see that he had another child and he had all these people in his life and if he stopped being such a pain in the butt, if he stopped being disruptive, everybody, including him, would have a better life. Because when he reflected on it, he had the insight that he wasn’t actually enjoying that much either.

So, the sort of the second part of the what to do with them, is if you get to know the person, you get to see what’s going on, you can actually help the person become a better version of themselves, and then you get to work with that better person, and they get to live with that better person. Now, unless I’m seeing that it’s all an inside game and it’s all created in my mind, it’s all created in their mind. Unless I’m not taking it personally, unless I’m not reacting to what they’re doing, unless I’m curious about what’s going on with them, well then what I’m proposing is hard to do.

But if I can just sort of end this sort of monologue with another story Kush, to show that it’s really up to each of us how difficult the person in front of us is. So here’s the last thing, it’s a funny story most of you will relate to this, it’s again, it’s a client of ours and he’s telling us about how it’s Christmas holidays and he’s shopping at the shopping centre, a classical scenario, his wife and his daughter are doing all the shopping, and he and his son are sitting there at the bench gathering all these bags and they’re just about to finish for the day, and as they’re about to head out, his wife says, “oh, I’ve got one more thing to get, we’re going to some friends the day after Christmas, I need to get them a little present, and by the way here’s one gift that we don’t have wrapped, could you take it to the gift wrapping stand in the store?” So he gets in the queue with his son, and all these parcels and he’s waiting, and he notices that the person, say it’s a woman, at the front of the counter doing the gift wrapping is not exactly pleasant. She’s not saying hello, she’s not saying goodbye, she’s grabbing the package, she’s wrapping it roughly, putting tape everywhere, handing it back and most people seem to be having an unpleasant experience, and when it’s his time, he hands over the package, she barely looks at him, she doesn’t ask him what wrapping he wants, she just grabs on, she wraps it, tape everywhere, hands it back to him and looks at the next person. And he leaves with, mission accomplished but his conclusion was, boy that’s not exactly a nice person to deal with, and isn’t it interesting that you buy this expensive gift and then the last interaction you have with this store is this unpleasant person.

Anyway, he goes to the minivan as planned he loads up the car and then he gets a call from his wife saying, “I got the present for our friends, but I just realised I need to get it wrapped, so I’m going to go into the person who does the gift wrapping and I’ll be about 10 minutes late.” And he remembers hanging up the phone and thinking “good luck honey, you’re going to have the same experience I had.” Anyway, 10 minutes later she turns up, his wife, she’s got the present wrapped, it’s beautifully wrapped by the way, which he finds interesting, and she said, “you’ll never guess, I had a lovely lovely experience at the gift-wrapping counter,” and he says, “really?” And he says, “well who was the person?” And she describes a woman and it’s exactly the same woman he had. Now he’s really puzzled because he didn’t have a good experience, he said, “what happened?” She said, “well, I went up to the counter and I started chatting with her,” and he’s thinking, this is strange no-one was chatting with her. “Oh yes I had a lovely conversation, and then she started chatting with me, and then she asked me what wrapper I wanted, and we talked about the different colours and we picked one, and we laughed, because we both picked the same one,” and so her husband’s listening to this and he’s having a bit of an out of body experience, because this sounds nothing remotely like the woman, so he said, “it is the woman, she had that little necklace on, with a little sort of diamond thing in the middle and the sort of leather bracelet?” She said, “yes, yes, that woman, black dress.”

So he’s now completely perplexed, and she said, “listen it’s not over, when I finished it being wrapped, the woman said to me, ‘it’s such a lovely vase,'” and this client’s wife said, “yes, we’re going to friends on Boxing Day, and so this is a gift.” And the woman behind the counter said, “it’s so lovely, you know I’ve never had a vase like that in my life.” Anyway they finished the conversation, and the wife of our client walks away, and as she’s walking away, it occurs to her that it’s Christmas and it’s a $10 vase, and so she turns around and goes back to the counter and gives it to her and says, “you know I had such a lovely experience with you, Merry Christmas, this is for you.”

And the woman behind the counter bursts into tears, and cries, in fact, people from the back room come out to see what’s going on and it turns out that she doesn’t really get on with anybody, which is why the put her on the customer gift wrapping counter, which, from a business model perspective is lunacy, but anyway that’s what it was, and what the wife of our client found out was that this is a woman that was actually pretty lonely at work, because people perceive her as difficult, so they always gave her the things to do on her own, and so the world looked hard and it appeared that the first person who had actually been nice to her that day was our client’s wife. So you can imagine the joy of our client as his wife is telling him that story. So it’s just a great example of how people are the way you see them, and given how you see them, you will act with them, and given how you act, you can either encourage or change the person in front of you. So I guess the conclusion Kush is that if you see a difficult person, well then you’re stuck, if you see that the difficult person is something that you and they have made up, well then there’s lots of options and different things can happen. So I’ll stop there, I’ve just given you a long monologue.


[00:26:22.15] Ankush: No thanks for that Robin, we try and keep these shorter, but I was so loathed to interrupt you because they were such great stories, such great case studies, and I was absolutely fascinated and listening intently to every word. Really great examples around what you said, that difficulty is something that we create, and the last one especially was such a great example of how even though so many people could see this lady as difficult, just how that can quite easily change when we don’t bring that thinking with us when we interact with someone. So we are going to wrap it up there, if people wanted to get hold of you and maybe carry on this conversation or find out more about the work you do, how might they do that?


[00:27:08.03] Robin: Well, if you’re someone in the world of business, we have a website it’s called:, we essentially teach people a set of principles, if you’re a practitioner. So if you’re a coach and you’re interested in the method or the approach that we use, we have a different website, because we do actually train people to do what we do, and that’s:, and you can look at both they’re quite distinct, one’s aimed at the corporate world, one’s aimed at facilitators, coaches and consultants. And then there’s an info box, so drop us an email and we’d love to hear from you, and you’ll see those newsletters on those websites, there’s links to our book we’ve written, and as I said, it’d be lovely to connect and I very much appreciate the chance to speak to you all through you Kush, so thank you.


[00:28:08.18] Ankush: Thank you once again for having, for sparing some time for us today and sharing those stories and that with us, I think that was a great great episode, and I’ll be back next time, thank you once again Robin, and see everyone on the next episode.



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