CPD workshop: Handling difficult people

Written by: Steve Burnage | Published:
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Continuing his regular series, Steve Burnage talks us through CPD ideas that can be adapted for your school. He will offer a template for a 45-minute workshop, with free handouts and slides available on our website. This instalment looks at handling difficult people

To deliver this 45-minute CPD training in your school, follow the advice and structure in the article below and download the free supporting handouts and two versions of the PowerPoint presentation by clicking the buttons above.

The purpose of this article is to provide a summary of a 45-minute interactive training session that could be suitable for a staff meeting, staff development group, small group CPD session or for individual study.

The training outline is included here while the PowerPoint slides and an accompanying participants’ handout is available to download by clicking the buttons above.

Slide 1: Welcome

In order to facilitate this short training session, you will need:

  • Copies of the PowerPoint slides printed three to a page with space for notes for each participant.
  • Copies of the accompanying Handling Difficult People handout for each participant.
  • Flip chart paper and marker pens.

Slide 2: Introduction

Handling difficult people will focus on positive strategies to engage with people whose behaviour we might find challenging. By the end of this session, participants will be able to:

  • Understand what we mean by difficult behaviour.
  • Suggest what might be driving the “difficult” behaviour.
  • Use “transactional analysis” to take control of difficult behaviours and conversations.

Activity: Write a description or draw a pen portrait of a person whose behaviour, you feel, makes them difficult. Share your ideas with a partner – can you identify any common features? Share these common features with the group and use the flip chart to record the group’s responses.

Slide 3: Just different?

How we categories others is down to our expectations of their behaviour and our understating of what “reasonable” behaviour might be:

  • Some people are very sociable, others value time alone.
  • Some people need detail before they make a decision, whereas others like to work on “gut instinct”.
  • Some people are relationship-focused while others are task-driven.
  • Some people love new experiences and change, while others value routine.

Often, we find it difficult to understand or identify with some people because they are quite different from us in terms of the way they think and behave.

Activity: Go back to the flip chart summary of difficult people. Identify the behaviours that make these people “difficult”.

Slide 4: What is driving the behaviour?

We don’t all react the same way to things because we are all different under the surface, as illustrated in the graphic below.

But, if we can try to identify what is driving the behaviour, and respond to that specifically, then our reaction to their behaviour improves.

Quite often people’s behaviour is driven by fear. If you can identify what someone is afraid of and remove the fear, the difficult behaviour can go away.

Activity: Returning to our flip chart descriptors of difficult people:

  • What do you think are the fear drivers for each of the behaviours you have identified?
  • What could you do to lessen their fear?

Slide 5: Natural responses to ‘difficult behaviour’

Eric Berne was an American psychologist who used Transactional Analysis to help people deal with difficult behaviours.

Transactional Analysis is a psychoanalytic theory where personal interactions are determined by the states of each person’s ego.

Each of us can possess an ego in one of three states – parent-like, child-like, or adult-like. We can use this analysis as a way of understanding behaviours (see graphic above).

Activity: Returning to our flip chart of difficult behaviours, how would you categorise them against Berne’s Transactional Analysis theory? How does this help you think differently about these behaviours?

Slide 6: Taking control of transactions 1

Psychologically, the easiest transactions between two people are complementary transactions, but they are not always appropriate. Just because someone speaks to you as a “critical” parent, doesn’t mean a “dutiful” child is the best response – just the easiest.

Activity: Thinking back to our flip chart behaviours:

  • What would be the complementary response to each of the behaviours you identified?
  • What would be the best response?

Slide 7: Taking control of transactions 2

If you resist the natural tendency to respond in a complementary way, you can cause a “crossed transaction” (by responding from the “adult” and appealing to the adult). It is hard to maintain a crossed transaction, so eventually you will find yourself in a complementary transaction (adult to adult).

Activity: Again, revisiting the difficult people you identified at the start of this session:

  • How would your behaviour need to change to cause a “crossed” transaction where you don’t respond in the easiest way, you respond in the best way?
  • What evidence would you look for in the “difficult” person to see that they had changed their behaviour to a complementary adult to adult model?

Slide 8: To conclude

In order to build more lasting positive relationships with people whose behaviours we find difficult, we need to:

  • Remember that “difficult” is often just “different”.
  • Try not to judge people’s actions based on your personal values, belief and morals.
  • Think about what might be driving the “difficult” behaviour and respond to that. Sometimes people attack as a form of defence.
  • Don’t respond in a way that will encourage the difficulty to persist.
  • Respond in a calm, objective, “adult” way as much as possible until the other person does the same.

Slide 9: Next steps

Activity: What are you going to do as a result of this training?


  • Steve Burnage has experience leading challenging inner city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for staff development, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Visit www.simplyinset.co.uk and read his previous articles for SecEd, including his previous CPD workshop overviews, at http://bit.ly/2u1KW9e

Further information

This article is the second in a series of Bite Sized Training CPD. Bite Sized Training offers a range of 45-minute CPD sessions designed to be used as focused yet active school-based training. The materials are produced by Steve Burnage through www.simplyinset.co.uk. Steve will offer us another free CPD session in SecEd on March 15.


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