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Mediation Tip: Dealing with Difficult People

Dealing with difficult people can be our greatest challenge. Difficult people are everywhere in all facets of our life. They are the one puzzle that we find the most challenging to unlock.


The Consequences of Difficult People


Difficult people are often a roadblock to what we are trying to achieve. If we do not skillfully interact with difficult people they will not only frustrate us but also send us down the wrong path to our own detriment.


Block a deal? Check. Cause anger? Likely. Elicit an inappropriate response? Possibly. Result in a Bar complaint? Hopefully not.


Analyze and Do Not React


The first step in dealing with difficult people is not to react but to analyze. Consider this as a strategic scouting mission to determine the lay of the land. Do not default to the assumption that difficult people are just inherently crazy and then move on.


Be curious and try to figure out what is really driving this person. Are they simply having a bad day and this is a temporary reaction? Perhaps they have an agenda and this is their means of achieving it, such as grandstanding for a client. Or are they innately difficult because they lack the proper communication or emotional skills?


How do you do this? First take a breath, pause, and not get triggered by the antics of a difficult person. Make your first priority the acquiring of data for why the difficult person is acting the way they are. Trust me, most of us skip this step but it is a very important skill to practice.


Gather Information


You will want to non-judgmentally observe the situation with the goal to solve the problem for what is driving the person. Read the room. Are there clues in the environment that can help you to figure out what is going on with this person?


Next, ask open-ended questions. Get the difficult person to talk. You can start by stating that it seems as though they are (angry; cannot help you; don't believe you; don't want to make a deal; are confident they will win, etc.) and ask them to tell you more about why they feel that way.


Just validating a person's feelings or position, whether or not you agree with it, goes a long way to defusing the situation and can provide valuable information.


If a difficult person makes an outrageous statement or insults you, ask them what their intention is by making such a statement. They may fess up that their statement was not intended and apologize. In that case, it was just a misunderstanding and it has been fixed. If not, you now know the person is a bully or immature. With a bully, leave it there. The bully will have to respect you going forward as you have called out their behavior and identified it.


Remember the Goal


The goal is to see if you have a chance to solve the riddle of what is making the difficult person tick. If you can solve the person, you have a chance to solve the problem.


Communication and understanding is the key. Dismissing the difficult person or their feelings/position will not solve the problem but that is often what we do. We are then faced with a complete lack of understanding or two immovable forces pushing against each other without any progress or resolution.


Employ the Proper Response


How you can skillfully deal with a difficult person will differ and depend on what is driving them. There is no one-size fits all tool here. That is why it is important to first take a step back and assess.


If the difficult person is just having a bad day, that is a temporary condition that hopefully can be resolved by listening and validating it. Showing interest and concern for the person can certainly turn that situation totally around.


If the difficult person is grandstanding or showboating, then you know you need to take them aside privately to have a real conversation. Trying to solve the problem in the presence of the client will most likely only result in more grandstanding and escalation.


When a difficult person has an entrenched and confident position that either their cause is just, right, or will prevail, you now have the opportunity to find out the basis for it. Likewise, you can share information that can call into question the difficult person's position. When skillfully practiced, you can have a merit-based discussion rather than just a positional one. This is often the secret sauce to resolving conflict.


However, if you find that a difficult person is a bully, not willing to communicate, engage, or share, well then you know there is not going to be much that you can do. Now you just have to focus on your agenda and push on the best you can.


The point is that you tried. You never will know until you try. Do not lose the opportunity to engage with a difficult person that is actually capable of being engaged.


The Takeaway


Not all difficult people are the same. Many engagements with difficult people can actually be solved if you analyze each non-judgmentally and try to learn what is driving them at the moment. If you are able to do this, you can turn the situation around and move on to working towards your ultimate goal.


Less conflict, more resolution.



Patrick Russell

Miami Florida Mediator


Meaningful Mediation is Ethical, Mindful, and Strategic

meaningful mediation



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