Talking to Difficult People
Communication science provides tips for talking to "difficult" people.
Posted Apr 23, 2019
We all encounter difficult people from time to time. Some of us live with them, and a lot of us work with them. No matter the frequency with which you talk to difficult people, these tips will help smooth the process and create more peace for all involved.
Patience is important to practice when talking to difficult people, because they may be pushing your buttons (possibly on purpose). Don’t give in to the urge to fight or snap back. Exercise patience, even if it is challenging, in your responses. Wait 24 hours to answer their emails, take a deep breath before responding in person, take a walk before going to their office to respond or, if this is happening at home, tell them that this discussion is important to you, but you need a quick breather, and you’ll be right back. Take that time to cool down and “rise above” the tension and conflict. If I know I am heading into a situation where my patience will likely be tested by a difficult person, I will think about how I plan to react ahead of time, mentally rehearsing how I will take a deep breath, remember that I care about the person (when they are a loved one), and think about what I want the ultimate outcome of the conversation to be. For me, the desired outcome is usually to not feel guilty about anything I said in the conversation and to instead feel proud of how I handled things. This mental rehearsal is also known as visualization and has been shown to reduce people’s anxiety around communicating and improve their communication skills. Visualization allows people to focus on the potential positive outcomes of the conversation rather than dwelling on the negatives and can set them up to use more patience. I often use perspective taking to remember to practice patience.
Perspective taking is hard to do when you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or are in a heated conversation with a difficult person, but it is important to prioritize if you want to walk away from the conversation without having said something you later regret. Whenever someone is rude or unkind, I always try to think about why they are behaving this way. I ask myself, what kind of pain must they be in to act this way toward others? What about this particular situation is pushing their buttons and making them so uncomfortable that they are lashing out? This line of thinking is not taking pity on the person, but it is related. These questions help me remember that they must be going through some pretty tough stuff to treat others as poorly as they are.
Research on conflict separates positions and interests. Positions are initial stances people take in conflicts. Positions are what people say they are arguing about. Usually, positions are not the whole story. Instead, if we dig deeper, we get to interests. Interests are what people really need or want in an argument or discussion. Interests are more about motivations, goals, and fundamental needs. For example, if my husband is pushing back about going out with friends over the weekend, I know that what he really needs is to feel like he is in control of his time. In order to feel that control, he needs to have some free time on the weekends where he can make his own choices about what to do. I also try to remember that it is not that he does not like those friends or like the plans I made even if it seems like the argument is about the specific activity I planned. Perspective taking gives us a window into the mind of our conversation partner and can help us understand their interests instead of just their positions, which are likely what our verbal communication is focused on. Once we get a handle on their interests instead of their positions, we can use emotional intelligence to craft a strategic response that is more effective than arguing back.
Use emotional intelligence to predict how the other person will react to what you are about to say or do. People who are emotionally intelligent understand how their own and others’ emotions work, and know what to expect from others when they say or do things that might be hurtful or set them off. If you know, for example, that your best friend is especially sensitive to any change of plans, you can work with this piece of knowledge to always alert her early to any changes you need to make and to frame the news of the change in a way she can better process and handle. You might explain all the reasons why it would better to change the plans and then let her come to the conclusion that a change is necessary, instead of simply telling her that the plans are changing. This is just one example of how people can use emotional intelligence to their advantage when communicating with anyone, but especially with difficult people. Emotionally intelligent people tend to be good at perspective taking and have better social skills than people with low emotional intelligence, contributing to stronger interpersonal relationships at work and at home.
You can read more about using emotional intelligence for stronger relationships here.
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Ayres, J., Hopf, T., & Ayres, M.(1997). Visualization and performance visualization: Application, evidence, and speculation. In J. A. Daly, J. C.McCroskey, J. Ayres, T. Hopf, & D. M. Ayres (Eds.), Avoiding communication (pp. 401–422). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.