All Articles Leadership Management Who's holding you hostage? Mastering difficult conversations, part 1: Conversations with difficult people

Who’s holding you hostage? Mastering difficult conversations, part 1: Conversations with difficult people

10 min read


Difficult people. Ah, one of my favorite topics about some of my least favorite people.

You know whom we’re talking about. They’re the high-maintenance ones who are easy to upset and difficult to please, who take everything personally, who whine, blame, complain, make excuses, feel sorry for themselves and where just the mention of their name causes you to have a knot in your stomach and walk on eggshells (aka their “thin skins”) around them. And in your personal and family life, they are the ones you hope will be too sick to come and gleefully spoil Thanksgiving or Xmas dinner.

Now that I’ve already re-created that nauseating feeling in you by just bringing them up, it is only fitting that as not only a consultant, but also a medical doctor, psychiatrist and hostage-negotiation trainer, that I give you the cure.

Read my lips — or, shall I say, my words” “What makes them so difficult to deal with is not your fear of provoking or them, but your fear that after you do that, they will react in such an appalling way that they will so provoke and upset you that it will unleash a deep rage inside you, that you are so uncomfortable with and is so out of sync with how you view yourself.”

After all, since most of you consider yourself to be fair-minded, thoughtful, rational and reasonable, the thought of wanting to rip their head off is a tad unsettling.

Where there’s a way there’s a will

One of the greatest obstacles to success in a business is conflict avoidance. In reality, people avoid conflicts and the confrontations required to deal with them not because they lack the will, but because they lack a step-by-step way to do them without the fear that matters will become worse. Here’s your way to do it.

Recognize when a person is difficult

Everyone can be uncooperative and selfish some of the time — and the techniques below can work during those times. But a difficult person is different from a person who is just having a bad day.

Difficult people have a distinctive view of life. They perceive the world as having cheated them out of something or as owing them something. Nothing good that happens to them changes that perception for long.

In contrast to healthy people, who feel entitled to what they deserve (and neurotics, who do not feel entitled to what they deserve), difficult people feel entitled to what they don’t deserve. They do not play by the usual rules of getting along with others. They feel justified in taking,without any feeling that they need to give in return.

This belief system reveals itself in different ways for different types of difficult people. A bully may aggressively push others around to get his/her way, whereas an overly needy person may feel entitled to have their hand held constantly, be continually reassured or insist that other people fight their battles. Bullies scream and demand. Overly needy people whine and complain.

Adjust your expectations. We expect people to behave reasonably, and the shock that we feel when difficult people do not do so can take us aback and be quite upsetting.

Difficult people sometimes may appear to be caring and cooperative. This behavior will last only until they get what they want. Don’t be fooled into thinking that they have changed.

In addition, the strategies that usually work with non-difficult people — such as empathizing or appealing to fairness — do not work with difficult people.

Once you have identified a person as difficult, your smartest move is to protect yourself from being blindsided. Expect these people to act solely in their own interests even when they appear to be kind and caring.

Hold part of yourself back. Difficult people get what they want by pushing others off balance. They do so by acting in ways that trigger rage, fear, guilt and other strong emotions in others. Remind yourself not to get emotionally engaged. This is their issue, not yours.

Helpful: Pause before responding. No matter what the difficult person says or does, make a practice of waiting several seconds or more before you reply. Stay calm.

The longer you wait before responding, the more the difficult person may escalate their behavior. For example, they may become angrier or whine even more. But the behavior is less likely to upset you because you are keeping your emotional distance.

What to say to a difficult person

Three good responses to nearly every type of difficult person:

  1. “Huh?” This one word can stop difficult people in their tracks. Use a mild, neutral tone of voice. Do this when a difficult person says something utterly ridiculous but acts as if he ore she is being perfectly reasonable. This response conveys that what the difficult person is saying doesn’t make sense. It works because it signals that you are not engaging with the content and tone of what was said.
  2. “Do you really believe what you just said?” Use a calm, straightforward tone, not a confrontational one. This question works because difficult people often resort to hyperbole to throw others off balance. They are prone to using the words “always” and “never” to drive home their points. However, don’t expect the difficult person to admit that they are wrong. They are more likely to walk away in a huff, which is fine because then you won’t have to waste more energy dealing with them.
  3. “I can see how this is good for you. Tell me how it’s good for me.” This response is a useful way to deal a difficult person’s demands. If the person stalls or changes the subject, you can say, “Since it’s not clear how this is good for me, I’m going to have to say no.”

Here are other responses to specific types of difficult people:

Bye, bye to bullies

A bully gets what they want by scaring other people. Even when they are behaving themselves, their presence triggers fear because you never know when they will explode.

What to do:

Disengage: Most bullies use words and tone of voice as their weapons. Say silently to yourself, This person is not going to physically harm me. Picture their words as rubber bullets that, instead of hitting you between the eyes, zoom over your shoulder. Caution: If there is any possibility that the person may be physically violent, leave at once and report them to the proper authorities (e.g. HR).

Respond: Take a deep breath, and say out loud, “Ah, geez, this is going to be a long conversation” or “You gotta be kidding” (said mockingly to show that the bully hasn’t scared or offended you).

Whatever the bully’s reaction — whether they demand an explanation or continue to attack — you can calmly say, “You’re upset, I’m starting to shut down, and before we get to anything constructive, the sun is going to set, and then we’re going to have to start all over again tomorrow because I don’t see us reaching any conclusion.”

If they keep pushing and say, “I am not upset — you’re just not listening,” you say, “Nah, forget it, it’s gone, gone — the opportunity even to get into a conversation is gone, finito, flew the coop.” The bully eventually will give up.

You can repeat this approach the next time. If the bully says, “Don’t try that with me again,” you just say, “Sorry, I find this exhausting, and I need to preserve my energy. If you can figure out a way to talk with me instead of at me, I’m willing. Until then, count me out.” Then walk away, which will be easy once you let go of the expectation that you will ever reach a win-win solution with this person.

Neutralize needy people

Unlike people who have a healthy need for others, difficult needy people expect constant help and attention and often use guilt to get it. No matter how much you do for them, it is never enough. They act like victims, suck you dry and leave you feeling depressed and incompetent because nothing ever gets better for them.

What to do:

Disengage: Imagine that the needy person has a hook that he is trying to snag you with, but the hook has missed you. Or if that hooks has grabbed a cheek, imagine yourself unhooking yourself that same way a fish might.

Respond: A needy person might say in a nails-on-a-chalkboard voice, “It’s not fair.” Pause and calmly but firmly say, “It is completely fair to everyone that it affects.”

Quid pro quo to takers

The taker constantly asks you for favors but never seems to have the time or energy to pitch in when you need help. Whereas needy people make you feel as if they are sucking you dry, takers make you feel as if they are grabbing at you.

What to do:

Disengage: Picture the taker as a child grabbing at you to get your attention. Imagine yourself calmly tapping him on the wrist and saying, “Now, now, wait your turn.”

Respond: Make a mental list of ways the taker could help you. The next the taker asks for a favor say, “Sure! And you can help me out by… ” If the person balks, say, “I assume you don’t mind doing a favor for me in return, right?”

Insist on a quid pro quo each time, and the taker will soon move on to an easier target.

One of the greatest benefits of knowing how to deal with difficult people is that, instead of avoiding situations where you might run into one, you will be able to go anywhere your heart desires.

Coming next: Mastering difficult conversations, part 2: Difficult conversations with good people

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Dr. Mark Goulston is a co-founder of Heartfelt Leadership, whose mission is daring to care. He is a No. 1 international best-selling author of six books including “‘Just Listen’ Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone” (Amacom, 2009) and co-author of “REAL INFLUENCE: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In” (Amacom, 2013), and he is a former FBI and police hostage negotiator trainer.

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