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How to get genuine cooperation from difficult people

Not everyone wants to be agreeable, but you'll need to figure out how to work with them.

8 min read




I was the agent on duty, and the woman in front of me was livid. She accused the FBI of harassment and invasion of privacy. As the duty agent, it was my responsibility to listen to her claims and determine whether they had merit.

It quickly became evident that she worked for an individual who had been indicted for money laundering and racketeering. So yes, the FBI had interviewed lots of people to get a better idea of who else might be involved. As one of those interviewed, she was determined to battle it out with me and accused the FBI of overstepping its boundaries.

FBI agents are seldom described as warm and fluffy, but neither are they the snarky, shoot-from-the-hip investigators often depicted on TV and in the movies. The reason is simple: Their goal is to calm down a person to the point where they not only see reason, but also agree to cooperate with an FBI investigation.

Sun Tzu wrote in “The Art of War” about how to win battles without a fight. Many of those strategies could also be applied to modern day life.

You may never cross paths with a criminal or engage in warfare. As entrepreneurs, business owners, or leaders, however, you willl encounter difficult clients, customers, and team members from whom you will need cooperation to do your job.

Here is how to get genuine cooperation from difficult people.

1. Remember, our first reaction is to not collaborate

Success in most jobs today requires the ability to develop strong collaborative ties with others. Kare Anderson shares a potent reminder in this quote: “Speak sooner to a strong sweet spot of shared interest to strengthen friendship and generate more opportunities.”

The key word is “sooner,” and here is why: Our emotional limbic brain system is survival-driven. Its sole purpose is to keep us safe, so it warns of us potential threats in our environment. Its first reaction to the unknown or the uninvited that shows up in our life is to run away!

Obviously, not everything that is new or different is a threat to our safety, but the limbic brain system does not know that. Furthermore, it doesn’t differentiate between events and people. In the absence of positive information about an individual you meet, the limbic brain system warns you to distrust that person. This happens subconsciously, before you have time to think about it.

How to make it work for you:

  • Move quickly when you want to get difficult people to cooperate with you so you can alleviate their innate instinct to react negatively.
  • Don’t attack someone else’s idea, as doing so puts them into a fight-or-flight mindset. Remember the advice of Sun Tzu — break down the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
  • Start off friendly. When you make your point in a friendly manner, you disarm them. It also keeps them from going for a defensive stance or position.
  • Show respect. Make an effort to respect the other person’s point of view, no matter how ridiculous it sounds to you

2. Control facial responses

The way the brain connects and relates to others is through a series of mirror neurons that light up when we see others perform an action that has specific intent behind it. For example, when we see someone smile in delight, our mirror neurons light up, too, and we smile back. Our brain likes to share the emotion of the person in front of us.

This is why facial expressions are so important when we want to get cooperation with difficult people. When we see someone experience an emotion, it activates the same circuits in our brain.

How to make it work for you: Control your facial expressions so you only show a positive response to the other person. Their mirror neurons will register your emotion, and their automatic brain response will not be to move away from you.

Remember, the flight emotional response is always the easiest to arouse, so be careful in what you say and how you say it if you want the other person to cooperate with you.

3. Share personal stories

Another way to activate mirror neurons and deepen connections is to share your personal story. People who have good social connections can plan, think and regulate emotions better than others.

When we tell the stories that have shaped the way we think, those stories can have the same effect on those who hear them. According to Uri Hasson, the brain of the person who tells a story can synchronize with the brain of the person who listens to it. The thinking part of the brain is activated as well as the emotional part of the brain.

This is how we can plant ideas, thoughts and emotions in the brain of the listener. When our stories resonate with another person, our brains become aligned. The fact that we’ve been able to share a common meaning (through the story) makes it easier to communicate on other issues. Hasson’s research further indicates that communication is even more successful if it is a dialogue rather than a one-way stream of information.

How to make it work for you: Your story will have more impact if you can convey how an  incident or decision has influenced your life or goals. Describe a challenge you faced, explain why you made the choice you did, describe the outcome and share a lesson you learned from the experience. Wrap it up and invite the listener in by adding something like, “I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself at a crossroads like this …”

4. Refuse to let it escalate

In his book “The Political Brain,” Drew Westen writes that when people see or hear information that conflicts with their worldview, the parts of the brain that handle reason and logic go dormant. And the parts of the brain that regulate hostile attacks light up.

When an argument starts, logic stops. Therefore, persuasion stops. It devolves into a fight, and that brings another emotion to the situation. At this point, no one cares who is right or wrong, and that is a sure way to fail.

How to make it work for you: Back up your assertions with data. If you want to be taken seriously, use information that has credibility and is backed by research.

You can disarm a potential argument or disagreement by simply saying, “You’re right.” This immediately neutralizes the situation by showing respect for the other person’s point of view, even if it does not coincide with your own. Once the other individual is disarmed, you can follow up with something like, “I see how you feel (or think), but here is another way to look at the situation…”

5. Appeal to higher moral ground

I took the higher moral ground with the irate woman in the FBI interview room. I agreed that it was unpleasant to have the FBI snoop around and ask questions about her. But, once I explained the higher logic of how the FBI had tried to identify accomplices involved in her boss’s racketeering scheme, she agreed that only if we interviewed people “in the know” would law enforcement be able to gather the evidence needed.

I appealed to a higher moral ground when I explained how the FBI followed the rule of the law to protect American citizens. She eventually became an FBI informant!

I have found that mental toughness often has less to do with being tough than with being emotionally savvy about what is going on in the brains of those around me.

How to make it work for you: Try to appeal to worthy motives or universal truths that are hard to dispute. If you can appeal to a “service above self” motive, it provides the listener with an inner satisfaction. Determine if the difficult person is motivated by achievement, affiliation or power. People who are achievement-oriented like to work on concrete tasks where excellence is valued. Those who are affiliation-oriented want to work in groups. Finally, power-motivated people prefer to be in charge and need personal recognition.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.

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