Smart strategies for communicating with difficult people

By Pam Penner
Feb 13, 2019
Photo credit: baona/iStock/Getty Images

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Why do we find certain individuals and situations difficult to deal with? Perhaps a person is resistant, emotional, or behaving badly. When you encounter someone who is uncooperative or obnoxious, how do you react? Chances are, your initial thoughts might not be the most productive. 

Of course, problematic people and situations vary. However, interpersonal conflict can be defined as differences between people who perceive or are experiencing different goals or ways to achieve goals; different needs or values; or interference in achieving goals or personal needs.

Consider the following scenario. Arjun sits down with Kelly to discuss her upcoming training for a new software program. He provides details on the training process, regularly asks for her input and tries to meet any of her concerns. Kelly gives curt answers and keeps looking at her watch. At the end of the meeting, Kelly says, “I can’t do this. I’m in the middle of trying to meet my quotas for the year and I don’t have time. Can’t this wait?” Arjun responds, “Well, let me look at the training schedule again and I’ll see if I can adjust it for you.” How would you respond if you were Arjun? 

The good news is that when you encounter a personal conflict or a difficult situation, you can manage your reactions and adjust your responses to be productive. You can also initiate conversations with the “difficult” person that enable change in a way that is respectful and inclusive. 

Understanding conflict resolution styles

A key step for effective communication during conflict is recognizing different conflict resolution styles. Identifying the other person’s style can help you adjust your communication style to work more productively with them. Identifying your own style will help you be more self-aware during your conversations. Ask yourself, “Given my style and its drawbacks, what do I need to do to be more effective in communicating with this person?” Keep in mind that any one of these styles can be appropriate, depending on the situation at hand. 

Compete/Direct: These people are highly productive, task-oriented, concerned about getting the job done, and like to win. 

Strategies: Don’t assume you’ll be given a chance to provide input. It is important to get to the point. Speak directly and assertively about your needs, ideas, and opinions. 

Avoid: Avoidant people don’t like to engage in difficult conversations or problems solving; they will often stall rather that confront an uncomfortable situation. 

Strategies: Ask them what they think and give them time and space to think things through. Then schedule a specific date and time to discuss the issue. 

Compromise: These individuals value fairness, moderation, and efficiency. They are often eager to find a practical solution that will end the difficulty, and often recommend solutions that split the difference. 

Strategies: Ask them what the benefits and drawbacks are to a compromise solution. Improve outcomes by listening to and focusing on their interests. 

Accommodate/Harmonize: These individuals value relationships and people. They will often focus solely on meeting your needs at the expense of their wants and needs. 

Strategies: Ask them what they want. Assure them repeatedly that you want to know what they think and need. Ensure outcomes meet their needs too. 

Collaborative: Collaborative people focus on meeting everyone’s needs; they want to know what you are thinking and what you require. 

Strategies: Identify timelines and deadlines for deliverables, as collaboration can take a lot of time. Ask if it is necessary to collaborate on the decision/outcome or if compromising would be more appropriate in the interest of efficiency. 

In practice: Circling back to the meeting between Kelly and Arjun, how would you describe both of their conflict resolution styles? How could Arjun adjust his style to more effectively communicate with Kelly?

Understanding positions and interests

So you’ve adjusted your communication style, and are accommodating the other person’s conflict resolution style. However, they are still being resistant and uncooperative. Exploring their, and your, position and interests in order to understand what is important to both of you can help you move away from conflict and towards a more neutral, productive conversation. 

Position: A position is a strongly held attitude or belief as to “how it is” or “how it should be.” “I want to…/I refuse to…/You have to…/You shouldn’t…” – these are all examples of positional language. People take a position when they believe that a particular solution meets their underlying needs or values. Knowing a person’s position will help you understand what their interests are and what motivates them. 

Strategy: After you understand someone’s position, shift the conversation to neutral ground. Move the focus of the conversation from positional language to the issue at the heart of the matter.  Ask yourself, “In neutral terms – what is this about? What is the topic they are concerned about?” Examples of topics might include roles, responsibilities, policies, performance standards, deadlines, office conduct, or job scope.  

In practice: What is Kelly’s position? How can Arjun shift the conversation to neutral ground? He might try saying something like, “I understand you’re concerned about time. Let’s discuss the time commitment for your training and how it will work.”

Interests: Understanding the other person’s interests – what is driving them – is essential. Interests motivate our behaviour, and if a person’s interests are not being met or perceived to be threatened a conflict will escalate. In general terms, some common interests include respect, security, clarity, efficiency, achievement, order, and responsibility. 

Strategy: Acknowledge the person’s interests and state your own. Base solutions on the things that are important to them in order to move forward – a collaborative approach can be effective. 

In practice: To move the conversation in a productive direction, Arjun could say something like. “I understand you’re being driven by a need to meet your quotas. But we also need to complete your software training by the deadline – it’s one of the goals my department has committed to. How can we work together so that you can meet your quotas while also completing your training?”

Resolving an interpersonal conflict or a difficult situation is complex and requires effort and skill. It requires the ability to manage our own reactions, as well as the ability to request change. The strategies above offer a good starting point for moving towards a resolution.  


Pam Penner is an instructor, coach, mediator, and facilitator. She holds a master’s degree in conflict analysis and management.