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How to handle difficult people

4th Oct 2010
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Mark Lee suggests some of the methods accountants can use when dealing with difficult clients, colleagues, partners and tax officers.

Probably one of the worst aspects of being in practice - or indeed of any working environment - is having to deal with difficult people. Sole practitioners who operate without staff and who are very choosy about their clients may only encounter difficult people in HMRC. At the other extreme, a manager in a larger firm might encounter difficult colleagues, junior staff, partners and clients, as well as fellow professionals in other firms and employees at all levels in HMRC.

Five key tips for Handling difficult people

1. Separate the person from the problem If you need to confront the client, colleague or third party, be clear that it’s their behaviour rather than them that is the problem.

2. Affirm rather than accuse Focus on how YOU feel as a result of their behaviour; ie “when you do that, I feel…” rather than “you make me feel…”

3. Promise yourself a reward When you can’t avoid a meeting or telephone conversation with a difficult person, promise yourself a reward if you handle things well. The reward might be chocolate, a quick look at a favourite website, an extra treat on your way home or anything else.Or team up with a colleague and reward each other.

4. Keep your cool Don’t make matters worse by getting into a heated argument, shouting or going off in a huff.

5. Keep notes Make notes during the meeting or phone call or as soon as you can afterwards. Be absolutely clear about what transpired and the advice you gave, promises you agreed or threats you made. The clients, colleagues and inspectors from hell are the ones most likely to cause grief down the line, so the more contemporaneous records you have, the less mud can stick.

Most of us have to deal with difficult people at work. How difficult a person is to deal with depends on our self-esteem, self-confidence and our professional courage. Dealing with difficult people is easier when the person is just generally obnoxious or when the behaviour affects more than one person. The task becomes much tougher when they are attacking you personally or undermining your professional contribution.

Your basic options
One way or another you have to decide whether to ignore the difficult behaviour (perhaps you will rise above it); to confront the person; delegate your dealings with them (whether to a colleague, a junior person or a more senior one); or remove the need for interactions (whether by you or them leaving the position that gives rise to the difficult interactions).

Ignore the behaviour
This is easier said than done, and may come across as submissive or non-assertive. It is rarely the best solution except on those occasions where you will not need to interact with the person again. In such cases you may get what you need or resolve matters simply by ignoring their challenging behaviour.

Confront the person
This requires you to be assertive and to avoid the temptation to be aggressive. This means you must accept that however difficult the other person may be, they still have rights and so do you. When you are assertive you recognise that you are entitled to information, clarification or a reply but that your entitlement is no greater (or less) than the other person’s entitlement to respect, politeness and honesty. When you act aggressively, you deny the other person their rights.

The other option is to act submissively or non-assertively, which means you deny your own rights. If this is your default position then you would probably benefit from some assertiveness training. It’s hard to respect non-assertive professional advisers.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Many of us have worked for an aggressive boss who we think revels in their ability to bully us. This may force us into a non-assertive stance. It will rarely enable us to get the best outcome.

Assertiveness is a skill. It’s not natural for everyone and can take practice to strike the right balance so that you do not come across as aggressive. Being naturally assertive is a skill worth developing.

Delegate or share
I’m a firm believer in keeping the end in mind, by which I mean focusing on the desired outcome.

Let’s say you are having difficulty securing the desired (fair) outcome in negotiations with an inspector at HMRC. Might someone else in the firm have ideas that could help resolve things? Is it more important that you be seen to have resolved things alone or that you/the firm secures the best possible outcome?

If a difficult client is taking too long to produce the necessary papers or to respond to your enquiries, perhaps someone else could go to meet them face to face or simply to collect things?

The drastic solution is to resign and move on, arrange for the difficult junior staff member to be moved on (following due process of course), or to tell the client that you no longer want to act for them (yes you can!).

Mark Lee is chairman of the Tax Advice Network and consultant practice editor for AccountingWEB. He writes a regular blog for ambitious professionals:



Replies (13)

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By The Minion
05th Oct 2010 11:08

It would be simpler if

we all had the same opportunities as football managers, if they are rubbish, unappreciative, aggressive, useless - so many faces come to mind :)

They can be transferred, life would be so good - you get paid for getting rid off rubbish, BRILLIANT!!!

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By beverly chester
05th Oct 2010 13:19

Dealing with the tax man and others

 I really support the proactive approach here. I have actually dealt with Inland Revenue Collectors and representatives of the Inspectors by telling them that if they care to phone back when they are feeling less aggressive I will deal with their questions promptly. It takes them back a bit which gives me the opportunity to calmly say that I do not respond to threats or bad manners but I am usually very helpful when asked for something politely. This usually results in a stunned silence or a "but we ARE the Inland Revenue" to which I generally reply "so". It works every time. Either they calm down and become very reasonable, often very helpful as well, or phone back later with an apology for their previous attitude before they ask the questions again or get someone else to make the next call. It works for me as they rarely phone again then.

It is, of course an added bonus if the client is sitting listening as they are really impressed with how I handled the conversation and I can revel in their admiration for a moment or two at least! I ALWAYS remain polite and calm during such conversations. I also do what I said and deal with the questions promptly, in a friendly manner, when they do respond properly and I rarely get the same persona making the same mistake twice.  Oh yes, if they are charming in the first instance, as many of them actually are, I also go to the trouble of thanking them for being so reasonable and helpful. It does get things resolved and I don't see why we shouldn't operate zero tolerance to bad manners either. I am not doing my job to be yelled at by a Collector of Taxes.

The Child Support Agency are next on my list to sort out. They recently called one of my clients a liar when he told them he had an Accountant acting for him and asked them to contact me. They did not even try to reach me and actually said to him that he was obviously such a con man that he was even lying about having an Accountant! He has been with me for many years, I am registered as his Agent and until last year when his wife walked off with everything in the Bank and sold the house behind his back he paid his taxes on time! Grrrrr  

Confronting clients is a different matter. I tend to weigh up what I want from the situation first and then work out my approach. Sometimes it IS best to just call it a day as they will always be right and you will always be wrong. I have ditched several clients this year who have just been a constant drain because they do not co-operate and bring everything in last minute with the excuse they had a cold (for 16 months - get real) and could not deal with it earlier. They never pay the taxes on time either and are just pure hassle. I feel so much better for it.

If I want to keep the client I usually write down what I want to say as before then try to challenge my own arguments. I can often see their point of view and I deal with it on that basis. On many occasions this method has resulted in us becoming lifelong buddies with mutual respect for each other's opinions and a lot more confidence in the business relationship which is what we want, isn't it? On a few occasions it has resulted in the client moving on because we have to agree to differ but I can still say hello if I meet them in the street and one or two have even come back twelve months later.

I am a bit more of a coward when it comes to work colleagues though. I do tend to get uptight if people do stupid things who I feel should know better, but I get over it just as quickly and apologise if I have been in the wrong. I now write down what I want to say first. It gets the anger out of my system, gives me chance to read it through from their perspective and if I still think it is fair I go ahead and have the conversation. It takes more time but it is also more productive and I think it is morally right too. 

Finally , there is often a reason why some people behave in an obnoxious way. It is often worth trying to find out why.

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By The Minion
05th Oct 2010 13:39


We have someone in our office exactly like you.

I listen to them in awe and wonder sometimes but it certainly works, the ultimate phaser for taxman and definitley CSA is "And can i have your name please?" followed always as you say with a "Thank you for all your help"

Certainly works.

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By AnnaKournikovasKnickers
05th Oct 2010 13:51

Dealing with difficult people

I find that giving their address to the local branch of Al Queda and getting a fatwah out on them usually sorts it out!

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By beverly chester
05th Oct 2010 14:14

Someone in our office just like you!

 Oops, David, not sure whether your comment is positive or negative but I live in hope as you sound a cheery sole!

I like the phaser, Yes I forgot to mention that. I have actually had people refuse to give me their names though! What do you do then? 

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By The Minion
05th Oct 2010 14:29

Absolutely Positive!

Dont do negative!

Just ask to speak to supervisor, it usually gets at least a first name.

As far as fatwahs go, i've never really found them to be effective, maybe i'm using the wrong branch...

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By scohen
05th Oct 2010 14:34

Handling difficult people

I like the 5 key tips which underpins any assertive behaviour. And there's a significant short paragraph: "Assertiveness is a skill. It’s not natural for everyone and can take practice to strike the right balance so that you do not come across as aggressive. Being naturally assertive is a skill worth developing."

Many people can learn and develop techniques and behaviours to be assertive .... as long as they believe in the rights and responsibilities of themselves and others.


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Mark Lee headshot 2023
By Mark Lee
05th Oct 2010 14:49

What fab ideas Beverly

I will quote you tonight (and give you credit) at a training course I am delivering on Dealing with Difficult Clients for the North West London Society of Chartered Accountants.

Thanks for picking up on those key points Sue and thanks to Dave and 'Anna' for your (shorter) contributions too.


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By beverly chester
05th Oct 2010 15:04


 Wow, I wasn't expecting that. Thank you Mark, you have made my day!

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By beverly chester
05th Oct 2010 15:08


 Thanks for that. Any ideas on dealing with BT? I don't think they make a computer big enough for holding all the things I want to say to them in its memory!

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By cymraeg_draig
05th Oct 2010 19:53

Keeping cool is not always possible

I do try hard to remain calm, but have to admit to once having pinned a client to the wall with my hands round his throat while I explained to him in graphic detail exactly what surgical proceedures he would require if he ever spoke to a member of our staff in that way again.

Isn't it a pity you can't reach down the phone and grab certain tax officers in the same way.


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By chrisjoynes
09th Oct 2010 10:24

I will be using some of these tips

I will be trying BC comment when I next have to speak to the Revenue. It can be so annoying getting a rude phone call from someone who feels they own you, there is just no need for it.

Also love the idea of writing down what you want to say to get rid of your anger and seeing how it comes across to a work colleague's perspective.


123 Contracting

Contractor accountants

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By The Minion
09th Oct 2010 23:25


Simplest thing to do with BT is use the words CABLE and VOIP.

We use BT in a limited way and event then they still manage to B***er up our broadband and email to make us look like cyber terrorists by giving us roaming IP addresses so we cant buy the usual goodies off t'internet.

Yes i know roaming profiles eh meant nothin to me either!


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