Do you know how to defuse difficult people?

Neutralising difficult people is crucial not only in business but in all areas of life. Devote 3 minutes to watching Nina Godiwalla, CEO of Mindworks, telling Harvard  how we can change our reaction: 

Nina trains executives and most of them are of the opinion that their biggest challenge is other people’s behavior. Does it sound familiar?

Change your reaction

How you respond to someone’s behavior makes a huge difference. Many times a person initiates a negative message or difficult attitude, just to trigger a response from you. If you react, you actually give them what they want. So stop the cycle of negative snowballing and sell them short on what they’re looking for by simply not responding.

The worst you can do is getting defensive because that'w what they want.

The worst thing you can do is getting defensive because that’s usually what they want.

Don’t get defensive

If you don’t start arguing with someone they usually stop their aggressive behaviour. One way is to just answer with a non-judgmental observation. It’s difficult, I know, because the cause of conflict is the trigger to our emotions and our emotions are what drive us back to our most basic survival instinct i.e. to react and attack back to defend ourselves.

But to counter attack makes it even worse, and is usually what the difficult person wants. So if you answer with an observation the person who attacked you normally backs off. Another way is to ask thoughtful questions to make them aware of what they are doing?

Change poison to nectar

Sometimes it’s possible to completely stun a person trying to pour poison on you. You can do that by complimenting the other person for something or tell them you have learnt from interacting with them. The difficult part about this strategy is to be, or at least appear to be, genuine. It may be difficult to find something positive about the person and you need a poker face to appear genuine.

How do you handle difficult people? Do you get defensive and counter attack? Or have you learnt to change your reaction? Do you realize that frequently difficult people take their own frustrations out on you? Are you able to control your emotions and not respond? Maybe you have even learnt to give them compliments to disarm them? What strategies have enabled you to defuse attackers? 

by Catarina Alexon

Video: Harvard – You Tube

81 responses

  1. One of the ways I found to be most effective in dealing with difficult people is to ask for their opinions and suggestions. Most of the difficult people I encounter are those that complain a lot about anything and everything. When I politely and thoughtfully ask them for suggestions on how to deal with the situation that they are complaining about, more often than not, they would act shock and taken aback and eventually shut up and stop.
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  2. Excellent post Catarina. And Nina's video was very good as well. As I was reading this, I was realizing that I do this a lot. I'm pretty good at stopping aggressive people from attacking me, because I have always thought to myself that even with their aggressive attitudes, their words might still have value, and I need to stop and think about what they are saying and not just how they are saying it. However, sometimes, when I have a lot invested in something and it is personally important to me, it makes it a little harder to do this. That is where I need to improve.

  3. I think the key to understanding difficult people is to determine their motivating factor. Are they motivated by ego? (i.e. "What's in it for me?") Are they being difficult because they don't clearly understand the issue, the situation or the association in which they are interacting? Or are they just a bully who gets pleasure from bugging people? I have an entire chapter devoted to this subject in my book on volunteerism, "Before You Say Yes … A Guide to the Pleasures & Pitfalls of Volunteer Boards."

    But in a nutshell, it's nearly impossible to change bullies and if they cease to change their behaviour after being confronted with it, it's best to suggest they place their efforts and talents elsewhere, and if you're lucky, they'll walk away and leave the situation/organization in peace rather than in pieces.
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  4. Hi Catarina,

    There are good suggestions. I think it also depends on the person the way you react. For example if it is your boss you will probably react differently than if it was someone who reported to you. Mostly it comes down to how you think and not take it personally. It also comes down to how well you know the person and their behaviour.

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  5. Catarina, I just loved the video you shared and find that a lot of times, behavior that I term aggressive and hurtful really comes from a sincere place to help. It just was not delivered in a manner in which I found honoring. If I step back and consider the person's perspective and thought patterns, I might see that the "offense" really was a gift in disguise and the intent, not to harm, but to help.

    Coming from that standpoint in my own head/heart helps me not be as defensive as I might ordinarily be. Honoring the other person's brain pattern by acknowledging their brilliance and insight is a good way to diffuse the fire and open up a wonderfully insightful dialogue. Sure isn't easy, but I've seen it bring about strength and bonding of a team.

  6. A good post, Catarina, and good previous comments, too.

    Where the aggressive behaviour is an outpouring due to frustration having built up, the calm approach coupled with asking how they'd change things, is often best. However, when dealing with bullies, I've found that standing up them generally works best. Bullies are used to getting their way by making a fuss so that people don't challenge them and so when somebody does stand up to them they tend to retreat.

  7. This is a great post! Because I work from home I do not encounter this type of situation very often. Many years ago I went through training like this with my co-workers. It's nice to get this reminder. 🙂
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  8. Although it is very difficult to not only avoid counteracting, but to take the high road in a genuine way, being the bigger person in interactions like this is much more rewarding and empowering. I like that you suggest saying "I've learned something from this interaction" because that's often true and will probably cause the other person to stop and think about the way they are acting. Cool post!
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  9. I've done a lot of meeting facilitation and if you find a disagreeable audience member, or worse, a bully, a very good way to diffuse the situation, is to ask, "What does the group think?" The group has been dying to shut the person up and will take care of the bully for you. However, if you become argumentative with the bully, the group will turn on you. Try asking the question the next time you're presenting to a group. It works like a charm.

  10. Adeline has a great point but to ignore the comment also works depending on the person. I wouldn't ignore a boss. good post

  11. Such sound advice. I've done enough corporate training to know that this isn't an easy skill to master.

    In my online course of the same issue, I start with encouraging people to drop the label DIFFICULT and instead use DIFFERENT. Because that is in effect what it is. And what I have found is that if I agree, acknowledge or apologize from the point of that difference, it's way much easier to move forward with calmer and cooler heads.

    Great post as always Catarina.
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  12. Boy can I relate to this. I used to run a large sales organization. We would get difficult customers who would complain from time to time. Knowing how to respond was important. Many times it is just taking a moment to really listen to what is being said. When we do it helps us to really think about how to respond. Many times if you just hear them out and then ask what could be done to change the problem or situation is all we need to ask. Often they just wanted to be heard and then we could offer a simple solution that made everyone happy. Approaching a difficult customer without emotion is key to having resolving the problem.
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  13. Great post as always Catarina and I enjoyed the video. Dealing with difficult people can be a huge challenge. I always keep in mind that there can only be 1 of 3 results. Either the situation will end in a win-lose (where they win and I lose), a lose-win (they lose/I win) or a win-win. Often, it's possible to find a mutually agreeable solution.
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  14. Hi, Catarina.

    Such an important topic: yes, very often the most difficult part of business is interpersonal. The video provides some excellent tips, like watching one's own reaction. I find it takes a lifetime of experience to work on relationships with difficult people. It's a process, and one is continually learning.
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  15. Recently, I had to actually, let someone go. This person should not have lasted the 6 weeks of the project. I had to let someone else go. That was not my decision. A person above me, "playing boss", said so. That person was responsible for the first person lasting over 5 weeks.

    Everything presented today was presented in the 80's. It is the musty, dusty list of stuff that is continually dragged out, polished up, and re presented as enlightened management.

    Applying the simple "Slim Fairview Test" Have things gotten more high, good, better? No. Have things gotten more low, bad, worse? Yes. Conclusion? Don't do that. The test works in reverse.

    Our problem (in the US) is the lack of respect for the empirical method–experimental–of solving problems. This applies to management.

    You perform the experiment. Record the results. Repeat the experiment. Duplicate the results. Form the conclusion.

    For too many years we have engaged in the method: formulate the theory, seek data to substantiate our conclusions.

    From the internet, very simple: a priori – based on hypothesis or theory rather than experiment. [The free dictionary dot com]

    With all due respect, Nina Godiwalla is pursuing a time tested method. Find what people like and sell it.

    Don't believe me?

    Diet books, get rich quick books, and self-help books don't work. If they did, we would all be skinny, rich and well adjusted. Rather, we are fat, poor, and polarised. Still, diet books, get rich quick books, and self help books continue to sell. The only difference is the venue: Talk show television or Harvard. Preaching to the choir still works.

    Regards, Slim
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  16. A lot of good ideas here to hold in our toolbox to deal with difficult people. An additional approach I have used, especially in situations where the relationship is critical, is to take genuine time to understand what it is like to walk in their shoes. In my experience you can usually find something you can connect with, that you can respect or appreciate, that allows you to be more patient and accepting of the poor behavior while you apply many of the other approaches described by Nina and throughout the prior comments.

  17. Always there is common lines with colleagues or fellow workers, it is not always conflicts. However, whenever a hard argument starts , it is important to listen and not to react immediately, there are some correct points that can be used to reach solution. We should not react instantly. Our aim is first to resolve, then to diffuse difficult people. I do not need to be defensive , I need to come up with the optimum solution.

  18. Great post Catarina! I found this to be an issue in my career, not only with some fellow employees but with customers too. Of course, the reaction would vary dependent on who I was dealing with. I have often used the tactic described in the video when dealing with folks who were less than attentive in a meeting… How can I help you get all that work done? Seemed to work every time. Though I have to admit, sometimes I am biting my tongue in half!!!! LOL

  19. I think there are different ways to deal with difficult people depending on the person and how they are behaving. True bullies may need standing up, but others are generally angry, hurt, and insecure about something. Staying calm and not reacting badly yourself while determining the best way to deal with a situation can be a challenge. Sometimes you need to acknowledge how they're feeling, let them know you've heard them without agreeing with their point of view.

  20. Great advice. It can be challenging sometimes to turn off the negative language that often follows when someone is difficult, but it makes a tremendous difference. I have also posed questions to clarify an ask when it is an outrageous one or simply not risen to the bait of a provocative comment. I’ve had 30 second pauses in conversations because I would not respond to a comment. 🙂

  21. Having run a large sales organization in my former work life, complaining/difficult customers were part of the routine. It is imperative that you know how to respond to them without losing your cool yourself. Most of the time, they just want to feel that they are being heard so listening is paramount to diffusing the situation. So I always tried to hear them out and then ask what could be done to rectify the problem or situation. Approaching a difficult person/problem without emotion is key.

  22. A few times, I noticed how the worst situations would seem trivial if I was in a good mood. Comfort foods, stress-free rest, and positive life changes, e.g., being newly in love, would trigger it. Maybe the more surprising thing was that I finally realized it.

    An occasional sexual harasser who used to target female new hires, his gorgeous ex, and me wised up when I asked him if he had daughters. Unbelievably, he did, and one of them was almost old enough to date. When I mentioned how his life would change once boys started approaching that oldest one, something clicked. He never harassed me again for the duration of my employment at that company.
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  23. I have always tried to put myself in the other persons shoes and if that doesn’t work I will often ask, as friendly as possible, why they are in such a sour mood. On more occasions than not I have been rewarded with a smile and laugh; the ice is then broken and you can get back down to business.

  24. This is so spot on Catarina. Your comments and the video. It's amazing how someone can attack us first to just elicit a response to satisfy THEIR ego. Keeping my emotions out of it is often the toughest part. But handling it both ways – responding on the defense or responding with being quieter – for sure, the quieter works best. I've got my share of bloody noses!

  25. Catarina, like Doreen I was involved with volunteers and these are people that are desperately needed by charities. The problem is, that since they are volunteers, some of them feel that gives them the right to bypass rules and regulations. That was probably my biggest management challenge. How did I deal with it. Usually straight on by using the ‘sandwich approach’.- such as: I really appreciate all the time you give but having you make decisions that affect the organization is outside your area of responsibility and can create serious problems. However, anytime you want to bring one of your good ideas to me, we will certainly discuss it. This usually got them working with me.

  26. This was a tactic I grew better at every year I spent in the classroom. I would never call a student out in front of their peers. If an issue arises, it's always best to talk to that person on the side. It's also necessary to identify the problematic behavior and how it's disruptive. That is when backing off takes place as pointed out in the video. Asking questions involves the person in a respectful way.

  27. Great post Catarina!
    The top 3 lessons I learned during my post doctoral work was
    1.Never get caught up in someone's anxiety.
    2. Don't let others define your behavior.
    3.In difficult exchanges count to 20 before responding.(I've gone as long as two minutes.)
    I can't tell you how many times I've used these tips in my professional and personal (especially when my kids were teenagers!) life.

  28. I think handling difficulty people, are one of those strengths which allow you to succeed. As you stated, our initial response is to attack back, but it just escalates the situation, which is what the difficult person wants. Thanks for sharing this very useful blog.

  29. In my 10 years of teaching, I have come across many problems from students as part of different committees and also faced challenges from difficult colleagues and higher authorities.
    I try not to argue with anyone. I try to convey my point in a cool manner and try to listen the points of others. I do not attack but may be I become defensive in sense of arguing.
    I came to know that many times when there is any problem difficult people try to take out their frustration and fear that is caused by problem in them. I always try to control my emotions, say my stuff and then try to listen what other says but in between try to drag attention towards need of solution.
    But at times it becomes very difficult to handle some people.
    I have learned a lot from this post will try to apply mentioned three points in future. Thank you for a great share.

  30. This has never been something I am good at. In theory and discussion I can point to the appropriate concepts, but in practice it is an entire different matter. Big sigh…

  31. It ‘s challenging dealing with diffiicult people, but sometimes we need to stand up to them after they’ve said their piece. Reverse psychology also works well. Good post!

  32. I like that phrase: negative snowballing. It's so descriptive! I find this problem sometimes when blogging and interacting on social media. When someone criticizes something I've done, it's hard not to be defensive, but that' just not productive. It's good to take a minute and calm down, and then try to respond with something constructive. Works almost every time!

  33. A couple of thoughts I’ve gradually learned over the years have helped me to deal with difficult people:
    1. Don’t take it personally, because it usually isn’t personal. If it is personal, this isn’t “who” they are, and they still have other admirable qualities.
    2. Accept that for some reason they disagree, but so do you so you’re still equals.
    3. It doesn’t matter if you’re not really wrong. What matters is that if they feel mistreated, you should do your best to fix it.

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