Dealing with Difficult People

Recently, I took a continuing education course on the topic of dealing (tactfully) with difficult people.

It was taught by the fantastic JP Reynolds, a business consultant and coach who has worked with companies like Citibank, Rand Corporation, and Direct TV.

The big take away is that people become difficult when they stop trusting the person they’re working with.

What exactly then, causes a lack of trust?

There are two sides: an emotionally-based lack of trust, as well as a rationally-based lack of trust — meaning that on a logical level, the person doesn’t think you have the competence to help them.

Often times, when we work with someone who is difficult, it can be easy to get caught in trying to win the difficult person over rationally, and in so doing, not address the emotional aspects of their trust.

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What’s more is that these two sides feed into each other. For example, I once was working with an individual who insisted that he should not be responsible for paying the taxes on the product he was buying. He believed this should fall on the company that I worked for.

He was very angry about having to pay taxes, and this affected his rational thinking. The thoughts that he verbalized were that the company was being unfair towards him, which further fed into his feelings of anger.

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As his thought pattern and emotional reactions perpetuated in a cycle, it became impossible to reason with him. His emotions had taken over.

In order to make any progress with someone who is very angry, those emotions have to be first be addressed, acknowledged and diffused. Apologies have to be made, even if you are not at fault (you can be sorry for the person’s experience). Empathize with them.

A simple way to do this is to say back to them exactly what they said back to you.

For example:

Difficult Person Says: “I am outraged that I have to pay taxes on this product. I had no idea I would have to pay taxes and don’t have the budget for this. Your company has made me completely stressed out.”

You Say: “I’m so sorry to hear that you’re stressed out by having to pay taxes. I’m also very sorry that you didn’t realize that you would have to pay taxes on the product. I can see how this would be frustrating, especially since you said you don’t have the budget for this. I can see where you’re coming from.”

From here, you can go into providing rational reasons for why the difficult person has to pay the taxes. If you cut straight to the chase though, you miss the opportunity to diffuse that person’s anger, and are less likely to be effective.

It’s also to acknowledge the motivation that someone has for being difficult.

By nature, most human beings are more inclined to be cooperative, rather than antagonistic. The bottom line is that cooperation is a quality that aids our survival. We need cooperative behaviors in order to function successfully and pass on our genes through the generations.

People stop being cooperative when they are experiencing fear about something.When someone becomes overly demanding and controlling, they usually have fear that what they need to be accomplished will not get done.

This fear often gangs up with the feeling of either anger or sadness when it manifests in communication.

Below are some ways that people will act when they are in fear (and hence will become difficult to work with), and effective ways of working with them.

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Also when speaking with someone, it is incredibly important to be mindful of the types of words that we use. Certain words are more effective than others in gaining another person’s cooperation. Saying “I guess” is imprecise. Given people a reason for why decisions are made by using the word “because.” The word “unfortunately” tinges a conversation with negativity. Using the phrase “as it turns out” sets a more neutral tone. Below is a summary of words that are more (and less) effective to use.

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Finally, when intervening to address a specific problematic behavior, something known as a “Perception Checking Approach” is highly beneficial. There are 5 steps:

1) Identify the behavior that is upsetting

For example, an employee isn’t responding to your emails quickly and is showing up late, seems to be disinterested.

2) Propose two possible interpretations

Hey Betsy, I’ve noticed you haven’t been responding to my emails quickly. Is that because:

  • You are overwhelmed
  • You aren’t feeling motivated in your job?

3) Let them explain

4) Ask them for a solution

5) Throw the solution back to them (perhaps follow up in email)



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