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Tips for How to Deal with Difficult People

practice difficult conversations

Do you work or live with a difficult person? Is there someone you need to have a difficult conversation with?  Do you want to improve a relationship you have with someone at work or home? 

It can be done. First you need to recognize that it’s all about communication, or lack of it. 

Most difficult people are that way because the issues or behaviors that makes them “difficult” aren’t being addressed.

Do it Sooner

The key to dealing with difficult people is to communicate about the issues (not the person or personality) sooner rather than later. The longer you wait, the more difficult they may become and the harder it is to improve the situation.

Think of a difficult person and describe the reason they appear “difficult”.  Is it an irritating behavior? Are they are rude, bossy, or say hurtful things? What, specifically, is the issue? 

Next, write down your answers to the following questions.  Be honest with yourself:

  • What is the issue, and, can I articulate that in a calm and rational way? 
  • What results am I trying to achieve?
  • Why?
  • What relationship do I want to have with this person?
  • And, most important,  Do I need to have a conversation about this?

Once you’ve decided to deal with the difficult person and have a difficult conversation, commit to doing it well. Practice and follow these steps:

1. Be Courageous

Most of us avoid conflict – it’s way out of our comfort zone.This is a time to face your fears and push through to have the conversation you need to have.  You may not do it perfect, but it’s important to do it any way.  This is probably the hardest part — getting started.  Some ways to help are to write down the points you want to make and practice with someone you trust until you are comfortable with want you want to say and how you need to say it.

2. Focus on the issue, not the person.

Be gentle on the person and tough on the issue that is causing the problem you are addressing.

  • Start with: Can we talk? or, Can I give you some feedback?
  • Share what something positive first.  Something like, I appreciate the work you are putting on this….
  • Focus on the issue: I’m sensing that there are some issues between the two of us that we need to talk through, or, I’m feeling that I might have done something to upset you.
  •  Be gentle on the person and tough on the issue that is causing the problem you are addressing.  Don’t blame the person; describe the actions or behavior that causes the conflict or stress between the two of you.

3. Be specific and descriptive.

Describe what specifically is happening and your thoughts, feelings, and wants. What are you thinking and/or feeling? What do you want to have happen?

  •  Pause and check for understanding. Say, Do you understand what I mean? and, Did I understand you correctly?

4. Listen.

Listen to their side of the story  using your best listening skills. Do your absolute best to conduct yourself in a calm and respectful manner regardless of how the other person responds. 

5. Thank them. 

Regardless of how the conversation goes, thank them for listening and for their time. 

6. Make an agreement for what happens next. 

  • What is the outcome?
  • What did you agree to?
  • When will you meet to check in again?

Then, congratulate yourself for taking a proactive approach to handling that difficult person in your life.

Betty Lochner is the Owner of Cornerstone Coaching & Training. She coaches small business managers on HR and career issues and provides training on workplace communication to organizational groups.

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