How to diffuse a difficult encounter in situations involving difficult people
At some point, everyone will run into a difficult encounter with difficult people. However, by using several key techniques, you can help understand why those people are being difficult and rationally lessen the impact of the encounter.
Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a 3-part series on maintaining composure and managing a difficult encounter with difficult people.
We all encounter difficult people and situations. As I discussed in part one of this series of articles, “Dealing With Difficult People – 4 Reaction Steps,” the cause of the “difficult” encounter is sometimes us – or at least our perception of the encounter. On other occasions, the other person is having a bad moment or day or, in some situations, is perhaps generally difficult. In either case, you can learn to better navigate and resolve an encounter by assessing context and managing your and the other person’s emotions.
Context means the circumstances of a situation, such as location, time, surroundings and people. However, context also refers to information that clarifies “meaning”, which can include who the people are, how they’re feeling and how you’re connected. You have to look around, size up the situation and ask a few questions. With preparation and practice, you can learn to do this quickly.
- Examine the setting: Consider where you are and what and who are around you: Are you in a professional, personal, public, private or work setting? What other resources, people or problems are impacting the encounter?
- Identify the other person’s status: Is he a customer, member of the public, co-worker, supplier, someone’s mother and so on. It can also include the person’s “emotional” role as the agitator, aggressor, anxious parent or mistreated client.
- Determine your role: By reminding yourself of your role, you can gain a better perspective on how to approach the person and situation. This doesn’t mean your role should necessarily limit what you do, but it should inform it. You may find that your role changes or evolves as you go along, but keeping your primary role in mind can be useful.
- Clarify the problem: This is not always easy because sometimes the problem is the person. However, as you can’t change the person during the moment, you need to hear his perspective on the problem.
Once you’ve assessed the context, your next action is to determine how you’re going to proceed to resolution. In some circumstances, you may want to relocate the conversation. You can ask the person if he’s comfortable discussing the problem in the current location. If you feel it’s safe, you may relocate to a private location or simply relocate to another public location. By changing the location, by walking or moving to sit down, you can begin to change the dynamics and this, in turn, can help the other person regain perspective.
4 Steps to Manage a Difficult Encounter:
1) Ask some questions: The process of asking questions to assess context helps you gain perspective and clarity. Ensure that you ask questions with a measured voice and tone and provide the person with time to think and respond. Consider questions that show you’re paying attention based on your perception of the situation. For example, you can say, “It appears that you’re upset. Can you tell me what happened?” Or “I would like to hear why you’re frustrated. Can you explain what brought you here today?” Or “I heard that you were concerned about ________. Can you share with me what happened?”
You may also ask if this is the first time the person encountered this problem and/or if he has previously tried to resolve it with other people or in other ways. Getting someone talking by showing your desire to listen can change the person’s emotions from feeling alone and vulnerable to feeling part of a team trying to resolve his concern.
2) Demonstrate that you’re listening: Very often, people need to know someone is acknowledging their experiences. You must really be listening, and that requires being in the moment (as discussed in the part one of this series). Not that long ago, I had to call my child’s school to express my concern over a situation that appeared to have been poorly managed. When I spoke to the principal, I briefly explained that I was concerned over the situation. I was calm and didn’t sound agitated, but I could tell right away, even over the phone, that he was not paying attention. His response to my concern was to say, “I’m happy to hear that. I’m busy right now. Can you contact me again in a few weeks to discuss it further?”
As you listen, pay attention to how a person reacts. Clarify and paraphrase back what the person said to confirm your understanding before moving the conversation forward.
3) Share information: Sharing information about your “brand” (how you or your business operates), your processes, past positive experiences and your perception on the situation can be helpful. Offer the information in small amounts. Don’t “quote policy” but be ready to inform the person of his options to resolve the current situation. In some cases, all you can say is “I’ll look into this.” Don’t be quick to throw someone under the bus until you know the entire story. Sometimes a difficult person really has drawn the short end of the stick and other times he’s just being difficult.
4) Ask for Suggestions: Involve the person in the resolution process. You can ask him what he was expecting but didn’t receive, what steps he would like to see in place for the future and/or how you can help him resolve his concerns. You don’t have to agree that his concerns were valid; you’re simply beginning the process to move to resolution.
Effectively Resolving Issues
Each of these steps is designed to help build a momentary relationship based on a mutual desire to address and resolve a problem, not lay blame or prove a point. Most problems are better resolved by acknowledging the other person’s concerns and emotions even when you do not understand or agree with the cause of his concern. Looking at people first – and not the problems – can enable you to more effectively resolve any issues.