Anyone who has spent some time working in a customer service field knows just how quickly things can turn ugly. Learning to deal with difficult people it a valuable life lesson learned.
Usually, it starts simply. Something might not have been ready on time. The product purchased might have failed. It might just be a bad day for the customer.
Bosses and managers may be poor leaders, or maybe a family member or spouse might become enraged.
Is there anything you can do to stop a bad situation from spiraling out of control? Of course there is. Here are 15 steps you can take to deal with difficult people.
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15 Solutions to Deal With Difficult People
1. Keep a Level Head
One of the funniest things in Douglas Adam’s, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was that on the front the of the guide in huge letters were the words, “Don’t Panic.”
In the book, these words are ironic, especially in the beginning of the book when Arthur Dent is about to be flushed out an airlock into space.
But, there is value in these words when you have to deal with difficult people.
Stop for a second to take a deep breath. Take another one if you need to. Then make a conscious effort to remain calm.
This is the foundation of diffusing a tense situation.
When disciplining children, parents are often advised to count to 10 before doing or saying anything. That’s sound advice for any difficult situation.
2. Open Your Ears
The next best thing to do to deal with difficult people is to try to discern what they are upset about. It may be a challenge not to jump into fix-it mode, but it’s better to figure out exactly what the problem is before you try to fix it.
Each individual needs to feel like someone hears them. Acknowledge how they feel and give them validation by listening to what is bothering them. Give them ample opportunity to fully explain their issue without interrupting them.
Pay attention to what they say. Your mind will be tempted to start formulating what you should say next. It’s better to concentrate fully on what the other person is saying and then try to think of a solution.
In most cases, you won’t have done anything wrong. That’s not the point right now.
Start by saying, “I’m sorry.” Those two small words can often go a long way to calming someone down.
Tell them that you intend to try to remedy the situation. Now that they feel like you have heard them and that you want to help, cooler heads should prevail.
4. Go With Your Gut
Not all situations can be defused. If your fight-or-flight reflex starts to kick in, do what you must to guarantee your safety. Determine the best method of leaving the immediate area.
For many years, I worked in management. It was an area that I both loved and hated. Hiring and training employees was usually great. Correctly or terminating them was another matter entirely.
One man specifically sticks out in my mind. Before we met with him, upper management had met to determine the best way to handle his dismissal. We knew his personality type and that the situation could escalate quickly.
Unfortunately, we were not wrong. In fact, things got so bad so fast that I had no choice but to call the police. To this day I believe that if I hadn’t, someone would have been harmed.
Protect yourself first and foremost, and flee if you have to.
5. Establish a Boundary
It’s not an entirely accurate statement to say, “the customer is always right.” Every business does what it can to provide the highest customer satisfaction, but there are things you shouldn’t put up with in the process.
“Adult language” is very common today. Many people use it without thinking about it. However, when those words start to come out as a barrage against you, it’s okay to draw a line in the sand.
In my last position, I handled all serious customer complaints. Many times a customer would have gone through one or two employees before I was given the problem to handle.
Understandably, customers were often irate at that point. Even so, I made sure to set a standard early in my conversation.
I was impervious to a few “adult” words flying my way, but when the narrative became vicious or the words especially derogative, I would give people a choice.
“Please do not speak that way,” I would tell them. If it was a telephone call, I would warn them three times that failing to calm down would force me to end the call. If the call didn’t improve, I hung up, sometimes several times on the same person.
In a family, it’s not uncommon to completely let your guard down. Sadly, that sometimes means that you might say something to your spouse or children that you would never say to anyone else.
There’s no reason you can’t establish boundaries in the family. Tell your family member that you will have to end the conversation until they can talk in a calmer manner.
6. Be Respectful and Polite
When trying to deal with difficult people, you may be lambasted with a tirade of hurtful words. Even though you may be smarting from the sting of the words, do your best not to respond in kind.
If you let your feelings turn to anger and your words to weapons, the matter will only get worse.
Strive to do your best to use respectful words like sir, ma’am, please and thank you. It may require some strenuous effort, but by remaining calm and respectful, you may just guilt the other person into acting better.
7. Validate Their Feelings
Even if you do not understand, it’s usually good to say that you do. Or, if it’s obvious that you don’t understand, say something like, “Please tell me more so I can better understand.”
Showing them that what they are saying matters to you will give them some validation. If you show that you are sincerely interested in fixing the problem, the other person will feel more like they are on common ground with you. The need to be difficult should improve.
8. Seek Help if Needed
One thing that often made me livid was when a man would rant to one of my female employees and treat them like nothing, but completely change when I or another male member of management appeared. This well illustrates how another person can often change the conversation dynamic.
Be alert to get help if you need to.
With my employees, we had innocuous words that could be used in a sentence or quickly sent by text message that alerted the other staff that someone needed help. When we heard that word, one or more of us would go to stand with the colleague in need.
An angry individual may have no problem with yelling at one person but may take a step back when a second person appears.
In a work environment, try to flag the eye of a fellow employee or reasonable manager if needed.
There’s often safety in numbers, so don’t hesitate to seek help when you must deal with difficult people.
9. Try Not To Be Defensive
A difficult person may do their best to make you believe that it is your fault that they are so upset. Your natural tendency might be to jump to your own defense.
Frequently, it’s best to let yourself be wronged. Keep your voice steady and at a low, normal volume so as to portray the sense that you are not riled.
Yes, very likely you will be riled. In fact, you might be hopping mad. But this probably isn’t the right time to release the pressure valve.
Keep in mind, at this specific moment, it’s not your feelings that are most important. If you can calm the situation, then later you can rationally discuss the points that you know were unfair or untrue.
10. Control Anger and Body Language
Again, when you deal with difficult people, it’s perfectly natural to feel angry. Do your best to control that anger.
In addition, purposely control your body language.
Pointing a finger at them or crossing your arms may add fuel to the fire. A pointed finger can be taken as a challenge or aggression. Crossed arms may signal that you have closed yourself off to helping the problem customer.
Hold your hands in front of you or let them hang loosely at your sides. Gesture if needed in the conversation, but make sure any gestures are not aggressive or accusatory.
11. Stay Versatile
Just as no two people are exactly alike, no two situations are either. Look for clues as to what the person feels would be the right solution.
In the retail world, customers are often looking for a refund or replacement of a product. However, some unscrupulous individuals may be looking for a business to claim liability or give them just cause to file a lawsuit.
Again, go with your gut in this area. Quite often, the less-is-more approach is the way to go. Say as little as possible until you have some idea what solution they might be looking to achieve.
12. Discern What’s Not Being Said
Many psychologists will tell you that anger is always a secondary emotion. What that means is that often there is another emotion that triggered the anger. This is frequently true when you have to deal with difficult people.
In a marriage, this is often hurt feelings. The verbal barrage you are getting right now may have nothing to do with the subject that is being discussed.
Bear with me a moment.
Imagine for a moment that a wife explodes because a husband is late coming home for dinner or that he forgot to carry the trash to the curb. Is that really what she’s upset about? Or is this something else that hurt her prior to this?
Personal experience time.
My wife and I, believe it or not, rarely fought. However, one afternoon, and completely out of the blue, she yelled at me, and not just a little bit either.
Now, I know you didn’t know my wife, but she was never a yeller. That was always my job if yelling needed to be done.
I don’t remember the exact words she yelled at me. It seems like it had something to do with leaving a dish on the counter or in the sink.
What I do clearly remember is that it had nothing to do with why she was really upset. It turned out, a few nights earlier I had said something insensitive and hurtful when we were out to dinner with friends.
The comment had meant nothing to me at the time and quickly left my mind, but my dear wife had let it fester in her mind for days until some small thing I had done was enough to break the proverbial camel’s back.
See if you can determine what is really bothering the individual you are having to deal with. Again, this is where active listening comes into play.
13. Don’t Be Demanding
Continue to fight natural impulses if you want to be truly successful. As a situation deteriorates, you may be inclined to say things like, “Shut up!” or “Calm down already.”
Hello, match meet flame. Not good.
Instead, inquire more about what is bothering them. Do they feel like they have been mistreated? Have they been offended in some way?
We all have the need to vent from time to time. Usually, once we are done venting, we no longer feel as upset as we were.
If it feels like a safe option, give the other person a safe space to vent a little.
14. Maintain Personal Space
If emotions are already frayed, it may not take much to make matters worse. Natural impulses may move you to want to touch their arm or shoulder to calm them down. This well-intentioned, empathetic action can be perceived as aggression.
Going back for a moment to the man I had to help fire, shortly before I had to call the police, the business owner made a crucial mistake.
Incorrectly imagining that he could do something to calm the irate employee, my boss reached out and touched his arm.
To say things exploded from there is probably an understatement. In fact, it was like someone flipped a switch and the man being fired lost all control as to his speech or actions. He screamed and flailed his arms and even rolled around on the floor a couple times. It was unbelievable.
So, when you need to deal with difficult people, give them plenty of personal space.
15. Recognize That the Person and Problem Are Different
As you learn to deal with difficult people, it’s important to remind yourself that the person and the problem are not the same.
Some of the worst customers I had to deal with over the years pointed out serious flaws in the business I worked for or the staff that needed to be corrected.
Even though the person you are facing might be acting impossible, the thing they are upset about may be a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed. Look at the situation objectively regardless of how the person is acting.
Strive To Be Better
No doubt, some of the methods in this article to deal with difficult people might be unnatural the first time or two you try to put them into practice. Don’t let that stop you. Just because something feels comfortable doesn’t mean that’s the way it should be done.
The fired employee that was clearly very comfortable with screaming and cussing was certainly in the wrong. However, those were things that he seemed to be perfectly comfortable with.
Give yourself time to improve and keep working on it even if your first few attempts are far from successful. Changing the world takes one person at the time and constant effort, so be sure to keep going.
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