Difficult People

by Suzanne Neville

Hints and tips

Below are ten steps to success with difficult people.

1. Suspend your assumptions

The first step, before you can begin to listen, is to suspend any preconceptions you may have about what’s happening or about what the person is thinking. Give yourself an empty moment as a corridor to clear your mind.

2. Listen

If the person is angry, it is tempting to get angry back. This creates a downward spiral, so you need to block that; get yourself calm, and don’t say anything until the person has paused.

3. Empathise

Angry people tend to assume they’ll get opposition. Your can disarm them by showing some agreement with their case. Your can rarely offer instant satisfaction, but you can say something like ‘Let’s look for a way to put this right’, so they can see you as an ally instead of an enemy.

4. Find out what they want from you

If the person is venting, they’re likely to bring up a lot of points that aren’t actually about their complaint – like all the jobs they have to do. Listen out for those things you can do something about.

5. Reflect back what they say

Angry people tend not to be fully coherent. When you think you understand the core of the matter, say it back to them with different words and ask if you have got it right. This gives a strong message of being on their side, which is likely to bring them round to your side.

6. Avoid contradictions

They may well ask for the impossible; if you point out that’s impossible, they are likely to flare up against you. Instead focus on what can be done.

7. Suggest a path towards what they want

Most people recognise that instant solutions are not on, so they will be appeased if you propose a plan that will move towards the solution. Ask them what they want most and what would give a temporary satisfaction until the permanent solution is found.

8. Stick to the positives

You can create melodramas out of small problems by contemplating the worst possible scenarios. Steer the person towards the good possible outcomes by emphasising the way forward and pointing out benefits. If you can, give them a choice of solutions.

9. Find something they agree with

Angry people are good at finding objections. You may have to go backwards. Start again by suspending your assumptions and go through the stages once more. The second time around they may be calmer. If they are still not satisfied, tell them you will make enquiries on their behalf. In this case, ensure that you follow through. Usually, even furious people accept the situation if they know that something is being done.

Key point

At core, what people object to is not having those things they feel they have the right to have. They get annoyed with anyone they perceive as putting obstacles in their way. A simple technique is to play the role of someone who wants to dismantle those obstacles. You and the angry person are going to solve this problem together.

10. Make sure they know what will happen next – and keep to it

The time of waiting can be an angry time. You can make this easier by giving them all the information you can, such as the date of the next meeting or feedback session. Promise whatever you genuinely can. Keep all promises. Don’t make any promises you won’t be able to keep.