When I discuss how to confront unproductive behaviours with clients, I often hear the question “how do I hold difficult conversations with people?” or “how do I deal with difficult people?”

The first question is the easier one to answer – a conversation is difficult if held without skill and empathy and depends more on you than the other party. Here are some tips:

  1. Be aware of your verbal and non-verbal communication with a view to keeping it neutral and non-judgmental.
  2. Ask for permission to give feedback. If there is sufficient trust, the person will generally respond favourably, and will be more ready to hear what you have to say.
  3. If giving feedback that may be delicate or hard for the other person to hear, start gently and give context with respect to your intentions. A blunt opening can stimulate defensiveness and prevent the other person from hearing your message.
  4. Clearly distinguish between suggestions and demands. Remember, when you are acting from a position of positional power, even suggestions can seem like demands on others. If you intend it as a suggestion, make it clear that this is the spirit, and that the other party may choose not to do as you say.
  5. Be specific and descriptive. Describe the behaviours or data rather than giving generalizations. Subjective opinions or value judgments will only stimulate defensiveness and will not work.
  6. Define the impact on you, the team and your organization. Own your feelings using “I” language (eg., “I feel upset”) but do not blame them for your feelings (eg., “you have upset me”). Explaining consequences will develop insight and understanding.
  7. Actively listen. There will often be more information than you are aware of which may help fully explain why a person is behaving a certain way, and in many cases people simply need to feel heard.
  8. Assert your own interests. While it is important to be reasonable and show that you understand the other side of the story, this does not mean caving in where you should not, or backing away if the other person becomes emotional.

Regarding the second question of “how do I deal with difficult people?”, it depends on what is difficult about them.

If they respond well to skillfully given feedback then I would say they are not difficult. However if skillfully given feedback is done repeatedly and the person does not change their behaviour, it is unlikely that they ever will.

If the issue cannot be tolerated on an ongoing basis then the individual may need to be placed on a disciplinary path or let go altogether. On the other hand if this is not in your control you may need to just accept that the world is imperfect and that not everyone will be easy to work with.

Kwela trains managers on how to hold difficult conversations in our Coaching for Performance and Communication & Conflict Resolution workshops.

Russel Horwitz, Principal