Handling high-maintenance people and situations without losing your cool


Dealing with high-maintenance people and situations is always a challenge, but it’s even more so during the holiday season. High-maintenance situations are extra tricky during this time because everyone is in a hurry, and patience is in short supply.

A high-maintenance person or situation is often characterized by intense and sometimes excessive and disproportionate demands on time, attention, or resources. High-maintenance individuals may have exacting standards, require a great deal of emotional support, or insist on special treatment.

The term is not always negative and can vary widely in its application. In the context of people, it may simply refer to someone who has specific preferences and is vocal about them, akin to “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” When it pertains to a situation, it normally refers to something that should be simple but isn’t and requires recurring care and precise attention to detail.

Dealing with high-maintenance individuals (or situations), whether they involve clients, colleagues, family members, or personal acquaintances, can present a variety of challenges:

Time Consumption: High-maintenance situations often require a disproportionate amount of time and attention. This can be taxing and detract from other responsibilities or relationships.

Emotional Drain: Excessive demands can be emotionally draining, as they often involve people who need reassurance or have frequent complaints that need addressing.

Resource Allocation: Situations that are high-maintenance can monopolize resources that could be more evenly distributed or used more efficiently elsewhere.

Conflict and Stress: High-maintenance scenarios may generate conflict or stress among those involved, leading to a tense environment.

Unpredictability: The expectations of high-maintenance individuals might change frequently, making it difficult to anticipate their needs or plan accordingly.

Boundaries: Establishing and maintaining boundaries with high-maintenance people can be challenging, as they might push back or ignore them.

Communication: People who are high-maintenance may require more elaborate communication and can misinterpret or be dissatisfied with information, regardless of its clarity or frequency.

Performance Pressure: The pressure to meet high-maintenance standards can lead to stress and impact performance or quality of work.

Opportunity Cost: If you’re running a business, catering to high-maintenance individuals can lead to missed opportunities, as their demands can distract from focusing on new or more profitable ventures.

Relationship Dynamics: The behavior of high-maintenance individuals can alter group dynamics, leading to imbalances and potential resentment from others.

Most high-maintenance people don’t see themselves that way, which presents an extra challenge for those trying to deal with them. Over the years, I have been guilty of “feeding” high-maintenance situations and people by not setting proper boundaries and expectations. When you’re in the customer service business like I am, you want your clients to be happy. Sometimes doing that one “no-charge favor” turns into an ongoing set of unsustainable expectations. People for whom you did that one-time favor often forget the circumstances, and the extra care becomes the new, unsustainable normal.

Here are some tips I’ve learned over the years on how to deal with high-maintenance people and situations (yes, this can include friends/family):

  • Understand the Underlying Needs – Often, high-maintenance behavior stems from past experiences where a person’s needs were not adequately met. Take the time to understand their concerns. Are they seeking quality, attention to detail, or simply reassurance? By addressing the underlying need, you can often preempt their demands.
  • Communicate Clearly and Frequently – Misunderstandings can amplify high-maintenance tendencies. Set clear expectations from the start and maintain regular communication. This doesn’t mean being at their beck and call but providing timely updates and responses. It reassures them that they’re in capable hands. Always take notes and keep a written record, especially if you’re dealing with clients or business situations.
  • Set Firm Boundaries – It’s essential to establish boundaries regarding availability, scope of work, and the communication process. Be assertive but polite when conveying these limits. Remember, boundaries are not just for you; they’re for the client to have a clear understanding of the working relationship.
  • Charge Appropriately – If a client requires an exceptional amount of your time and resources, it’s reasonable to adjust your rates to compensate for this. Explain that the level of service they require incurs additional charges. This can often lead to a more balanced relationship. I wrote a previous article about the cost and value of customer service.
  • Stay Organized – High-maintenance clients and situations can send you into a tailspin if you’re not organized. Keep meticulous records of all communications and agreements. This will not only keep you sane but also provide a point of reference for any disputes.
  • Be Empathetic – Put yourself in their shoes. High-maintenance clients often just want to be heard and valued. Show empathy, and often you’ll find that this alone can de-escalate a situation.
  • Train Your Team – Ensure that everyone on your team knows how to deal with high-maintenance people effectively. Training should include de-escalation techniques, customer service skills, and stress management.
  • Pick Your Battles – Sometimes, it’s not about the coffee being too hot or the report being too long; it’s about feeling important. Know when to give in to small demands and when to stand firm.
  • Maintain Professionalism – Regardless of how demanding or unreasonable requests may seem, always maintain a professional demeanor. This upholds your reputation and sets the tone for the relationship.
  • Know When to Walk Away – In rare cases, if a client’s demands become too much for you to handle, it may be best to part ways. Do so professionally, and provide them with options, such as referring them to another service provider. If it’s a family member or friend, you may need to walk away and get a fresh perspective on the situation so you can re-engage at a later time.

I tend to like to solve problems and situations immediately, then move on. To me, most problematic situations and relationships are fixable. Over the years, I’ve learned that not everyone is willing or able to do that. After I’ve made a best-efforts attempt at resolution, oftentimes I’ll seek outside counsel to get fresh perspectives. If that still doesn’t fix the situation or relationship, then I look for an exit strategy. Life is too short to be miserable, and honestly, some people in life just don’t want to be happy. I’m not one of those people.

In conclusion, handling high-maintenance people is an exercise in balance—balancing their needs with your own, balancing empathy with assertiveness, and balancing accommodation with boundary-setting. Keep your cool by staying prepared, composed, and understanding, and you’ll navigate these complex relationships with grace and professionalism.

How do you intend to handle high-maintenance people and situations this holiday season?

[Joe Domaleski, a Fayette County resident for 25 years, is the owner of Country Fried Creative – an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Peachtree City. His company was the Fayette Chamber’s 2021 Small Business of the Year.  Joe is a husband, father of three grown children, and proud Army veteran.  He has an MBA from Georgia State University and enjoys sharing his perspectives drawing from thirty years of business leadership experience. Sign up for the Country Fried Creative newsletter to get marketing and business articles directly in your inbox. ]