Whether it’s an irate customer or negative coworker or demanding family member, we’ve all had to deal with difficult people at some point in our lives.
If the thought of dealing with a difficult person sends your heart rate up, you’re not alone. Difficult people can increase our stress levels and impact our emotional wellbeing. But a way to combat stress and cope better in these challenging situations is to manage the way we react and communicate.
Along with powerful phrases that you can use in conversation, here are some tips to help you deal with a difficult person in your personal or professional life.
Manage your emotions
Sure, difficult people can drive us nuts, but we need to be able to keep our emotions in check.
When we’re angry, it’s hard to listen to the other person or remain objective. We can even make things worse by lashing out and slinging accusations or hurtful words.
While it’s easier said than done, we need to defuse our own emotions before entering a difficult conversation. Maybe it means taking a short walk around the block or taking a few moments in the restroom or an empty office to gather your thoughts.
It can also help to acknowledge your feelings and say out loud,”I am so angry right now.” Let yourself feel your feelings and then let it go.
Afterwards, you’ll be able to enter a conversation feeling much more centered and calm.
Be mindful of body language
While verbal communication is key for handling conflict resolution and dealing with difficult people, it’s just as important to be aware of our non-verbal cues.
Our body language says a lot more than we realize. Slouched shoulders communicate boredom or disinterest. Crossed arms convey anger or defensiveness. And rolling our eyes or shaking our head expresses our displeasure or disbelief.
Negative body language can elicit negative reactions from other people. Which isn’t helpful when we’re trying to ease the tension. To create a safe and open environment for conversation, we need to show that we’re fully engaged and attentive. This means putting away our phones and devices and keeping our eyes on the other person. And turning our bodies toward the other person instead of shifting away from them.
Even something as simple as nodding along can make a conversation feel less hostile, and more neutral.
To be more mindful of your body language, try examining how you behave with people you get along with. What do you do with your arms? Where do you focus your eyes? Then use these non-verbal cues the next time you’re having a difficult conversation. Your positive body language may be the key to turning things around and helping you interact with a difficult person.
Powerful phrases for dealing with difficult people
I think that…
This simple phrase is deceptively powerful. In order to address and resolve conflict, we want to check ourselves and make sure that we’re not using judgmental comments or assigning blame. In that regard, it’s helpful to use “I” statements when communicating.
When we say things like “You’re being irrational” or “You’re always late'' it casts blame and puts the other person on the defensive. Whereas phrases like “I think that…” or “I understand that…” redirect the attention to your point of view and the matter at hand.
So what you’re saying is…
If we want to have better conversations, we need to engage in active listening. Active listening involves repetition and being able to summarize what’s been said.
Using phrases like or “What I’m hearing is…” or “If I’m getting this right…” and then summarizing the main points, can help you gain clarity on the situation and make sure that you’re both on the same page.
Echoing the conversation not only helps the other person feel heard, but it also helps them hear what they’ve been saying. This will give them a chance to clarify or explain any misunderstanding. When practicing this technique, keep in mind that you want to repeat what’s been said while also withholding judgment. This way, the repetition won’t be misconstrued as sarcasm or condescension, and the other person will remain engaged.
Can you help me understand?
We often use phrases and scripts to deal with difficult coworkers, but sometimes a simple question is just as effective.
In this Harvard Business Review article, author Amy Gallo writes:
“Instead of thinking about what you want to say, consider what you want to learn. This will help you get to the root cause of the conflict and set you up to resolve it.”
So the next time you’re in a heated exchange with a coworker, take a moment to pause and ask a question so that they have a chance to explain or clarify. Perhaps you’ll gain a better understanding of the situation and the opportunity to see eye to eye.
I hear you.
This is probably one of the most powerful phrases that you can use when dealing with all kinds of people.
While it’s hard to believe in the heat of the moment, difficult people aren’t deliberately trying to be difficult. Or if they are, there might be some underlying reason that we’re not aware of. Maybe they’re having a rough time at home or maybe they’re having trouble coping with the stresses and pressures of work.
At the end of the day, everyone wants to be heard. You may not exactly understand your coworker or agree with how they approach things, but hearing them out can be the first step toward reaching a resolution.
I’ve always appreciated how you…
When dealing with a difficult coworker, gratitude may be the last thing on our mind. But coming into the conversation with gratitude and compassion can help soothe tempers and deescalate conflict.
It’s less about praising difficult behavior, and more about acknowledging the positive traits that you’d like to keep seeing. For example, if a coworker has a tendency to lash out at others during important meetings, maybe you can say something along the lines of “I appreciate how invested you are in this project…” and then back it up with your concern. “And I’m concerned that the way you communicate is impacting morale.”
This way, you’re not attacking the coworker for showing interest and dedication, but you are addressing the specific behavior that needs attention.
Like any other skill, dealing with difficult people will take time and effort. It may not come easy at first, but you will improve your communication skills over time. If you’re still finding it hard to cope with a difficult person, it may be time to notify a manager or someone you trust to help you address the issue.