5 Ways to Deal with Difficult People

We have all come in contact with these people - a boss, a colleague, a customer, a supplier. These people take a hard, and often unreasonable, line, and you are either left fuming, or worse, conceding with no reciprocity - they don't even acknowledge your sacrifice! How do you deal with people like these? Should you react and tell them off (not so easy if you need to work with them), or should you simply grin and bear it (not healthy, because something will give)? In this article, we share 5 ways as outlined by William Ury in his book with Roger Fisher, Getting to Yes, to deal with difficult people - be they your boss, colleague, spouse, business partner, or customer.

1. Don't react, step out

When someone is unreasonable to you, your natural reaction is to get angry. Some people react to this by showing their emotion, which makes the situation more difficult. Any conclusion to this might lead one, or even both, parties to renege after the meeting. Instead, take a break. In Ury's words - go to the balcony. Don't say anything, call a break and literally step out; and if you do have a balcony, go there. If you don't physically have a balcony, or it is inconvenient for you to step out, then take a mental timeout. Go to a different part of the room, and then step out onto your mental balcony. By stepping out, you give some distance between the situation and your emotions. Then from this vantage point, you can look down on your situation and pull apart the person from the problem. When two people are equally invested in a situation, there may be opposing emotions. Hence, there is a need to separate them, and then formulate your response. Only when you are sufficiently calm, return to the table, and continue the discussion.

2. Disarm them

Another way to deal with unreasonable, difficult people is to disarm them by taking their side. First agree with them without accepting any responsibility. Then, uncover the situation from their point of view, asking pointed questions to show genuine concern. When this happens, their aggression toward you will dissipate, since now both of you are on the same page. This is a great tactic when dealing with difficult customers, especially one who comes to your service counter in full sight of other customers, raising their voice and accusing your company of wrong. Immediately apologise, side with them by saying something like,

"I am sorry you have had such a poor experience using our product/service. I would feel that way too if I were you. Let me see if I can understand what is going on and make it better for you?"

This will disarm the person's negative emotion, and allows you to get to the bottom of things.

3. Don't reject, reframe

For anyone familiar with our work, you will instantly recognise that this is one of our favourite methods for pivoting a problem, for innovation, and now, for negotiation and dealing with difficult people. Shift the discussion away from the contentious area, carving out a new space for discussion. For example, your product partner is accusing you of not putting in the same resources as they are in getting a product out to market, and is forcing the issue on you to increase your budget for the project or they will pull out. Seems intractable, no? Well, you can reframe the issue by saying something like,

"Instead of counting who is doing what and by how much, why don't we focus on what we can do to make it worth the while for each of us to put whatever amount of resources we can to meet our collective outcome? How does that sound?"

Suddenly, this shifts them from a positional play onto a collaborative one. Of course, they can choose not to reframe, but if the frame is crafted such that it meets the interests of all parties on the table, it is difficult to reject this without being seen as unreasonable or combative. Hence, they will have to take it and this allows you to move on the right track.

4. Make it easy to say "yes"

This is what Ury calls the "golden bridge". Sometimes, a person comes to the table insisting on his position because he may already have been backed into a corner, and there is no way to not take drastic measures. If you can create a way for the person to back down and save face at the same time, that would be the golden bridge to help the person say "yes" more easily.

For example, during the Cuban missile crisis, there was a major standoff between the US and Soviet Union which was coming to a head with a Soviet frieghter carrying nuclear missiles approaching the naval blockade to deliver its cargo of missiles to Cuba. The navy was tasked to stop any and all ships from breaching the blockade. Yet, firing upon the freighter tentamounts to a declaration of war, and that would certainly have heralded another nuclear confrontation. In the run-up to the freighter crossing the blockade, US President John F. Kennedy got on the call with his counterpart in Soviet Union, Nikita Krushchev, to negotiate a way out. Ultimately, the US agreed, in exchange to dismantling the nuclear weapons on Cuba, to publicly state that they would not invade Cuba. However, in secret, Kennedy also promised to dismantle the nuclear weapons in Turkey and Italy, a sticky point that prevented Krushchev from backing down. By doing this, the US had built the golden bridge with the Soviets, allowing them to back down with face, and for all parties to achieve their ultimate interests.

5. Make it hard to say "no"

On the flip side of the previous point, I suppose, is to make it hard for them to say no. Bring them to their senses, not to their knees. Use your power, position, knowledge, intellect to help educate your counterpart, allowing him to see the consequences and alternatives. By doing so, he may well be open to reason and to start walking down the "golden bridge" as we have seen Kennedy and Krushchev do.


You of course don't have to apply all these in one sitting. Some of us have a preferred method in dealing with difficult people; mine happens to be disarming and reframing. I prefer to co-create a solution after siding with my counterpart. However, when there seems to be resistance, then I will build the "golden bridge" by creating a solution so enticing that the person says "yes" to easily. But I will not use the golden bridge tactic every time because when it becomes known that I will always solve thorny problems by creating this bridge, people will simply stick to their guns, and I end up doing all the work, and possibly even conceding more than I want. So disarm and reframe. These are my two favourite ways in dealing with a difficult person.

What's yours?

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