I once attended a workshop on dealing with difficult people. Right before lunch, the trainer had us list all the things difficult people do. After lunch, we listed everything we find ourselves doing when confronted with a difficult person. The big reveal: the lists were identical! Turns out that difficult people bring out the worst in us, and in response our negative energy makes them even more difficult. It is a spiraling contest that no one wins.
Here are a few approaches I’ve found work really well to get out of the spiral and lead to a positive outcome.
- Validate: Difficult behavior is often motivated by anxiety or fear. What is the underlying concern? Repeat back to the person what you hear them saying, and ask clarifying questions: “It sounds like you are concerned about X. Help me understand more about that.” Showing someone they are heard and understood immediately defuses the tension. In contrast, defending or denying what they are feeling is a recipe for escalation.
- Praise sincerely: Be liberal with praise when you can do so honestly, especially outside of interactions where you need something. People are more likely to hear criticism from you if there is a positive balance in the bank of praise.
- Don’t take the bait: The other party may raise their voice, exhibit negative body language, and push all your buttons. Make a conscious effort not get sucked in. Open your arms, lean in slightly, and keep your voice calm.
- Articulate shared goals: Zoom out and describe a larger goal that you can agree on. This links you arm in arm, headed in the same direction, and makes it easier to resolve disagreements about the route.
- Offer a trade: Instead of telling someone “no” or “can’t,” offer a reasonable alternative. “I agree we want to get donor support for this project. I think the best way to do that is…” Examples of other affirmative phrases for redirecting a bad idea: “What if we…,” “I suggest we try…” or “My best advice is…”.
- Stand up to bullies: No one has to put up with being shouted or cursed at or personally attacked. If someone has crossed the boundaries of decent and professional behavior, you can say firmly but calmly: “I can’t listen to you when you’re shouting at me (or making personal attacks). Let’s pause and let things cool down before we talk again.”
- Agree to disagree: The same trainer in my opening story taught us a valuable phrase to use when you just want to get away from someone who won’t stop asserting an opinion: “You may be right.” It doesn’t mean you agree; there is always an infinitesimal chance they could be right! But it allows you a graceful exit without winning or conceding defeat.