Handling the Difficult Person

I recently read this statement, “If you lend someone $20 and you never see that person again, it was probably worth it.”  We sometimes have to deal with a difficult person. Having the difficult person in your meeting or, worse, reporting to such an individual or having that person report to you can be frustrating at best. There is always the customer or student or colleague who makes life difficult at times. As one sage said, “I believe some people exist simply to annoy me.”

Here are some communication techniques that can be helpful in dealing with a difficult person.

Be pleasant in your dealings with that person. Don’t return anger with anger. Keep your voice at a normal range or softer and avoid the temptation to ”put the person in his or her place.”  This may be challenging if the person verbally attacks you, but your manner can calm the person.

If this is a person you will see often, learn about his or her background. Perhaps there is a reason this individual is so difficult. Perhaps they are influenced by a chronic illness or a recent family death. If you don’t have a chance to get to know them, simply assuming certain personal factors contribute to the behavior can help you have more compassion and patience.

Avoid emotional-laden words like “stupid,” “crazy,” “dumb,” and any profanity. Enough said!

Don’t interrupt. This will simply exacerbate the anger or belligerent attitude of the person. Let the person talk. Maintain a concerned expression as you listen. At any pause, ask a question to encourage them to keep talking. If you have time, say, “What else makes you so concerned?”  “Have you told me everything?” or   “What makes you feel this way?” or “Tell me more.”

When people are upset, they are like balloons so full they are ready to explode. This technique of asking more questions to keep them talking is like letting a balloon’s air out slowly until finally the balloon deflates completely. Helping the person cathart is letting the air out of the balloon. You do not want the balloon to pop.

When I taught a course for a public seminar company on “Dealing with the Difficult Person,” I taught a technique called “negative inquiry.”  When a person is upset, ask a question about the issue. Let each of your questions build on what the person has complained about. For example, a customer might say, “You have lousy service. I’m leaving!”

Response: “What makes you say we have poor service?’”

The customer answers, “Your people are rude when I call and complain.”

Your second response might be, “What do they do that is rude?”

With each follow-up question, you gain valuable information that may improve the quality of your responses. You may even salvage this person’s business with this approach as well as learn valuable information about your company’s customer service.

If all else fails, give him $20 and see what happens.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at steveboyd111@gmail.com.

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