7 Ways to Have a Good Conversation with a Difficult Person

I wanted to reach across the desk and choke the life from my boss as she threw down the tattered “big girl” dress onto my desktop while proclaiming, “I’m sorry I made you stay late last night. Here’s a little something you might like. It doesn’t fit me after I lost all this weight.”

“You @!$*&,” I thought.

This true story happened when I worked for my least-favorite boss of all time! We all encounter people who get our blood boiling, demean, dismiss or otherwise incite an internal riot in us. We call them jerks, difficult people…miserable messes. Unfortunately, we find them at work, in our families and everywhere in-between.

For selfish reasons, here’s why it’s not smart to get into it with someone you really don’t like:

Despising someone is exhausting. A negative, low-energy, fear-based thought or response kick-starts a rush of stress hormones, elevates your heart rate and blood pressure, and starves your brain of blood and oxygen needed to think clearly and say intelligent things. That blood, instead, travels to your major muscle groups as they brace for a fight. Conversely, a higher energy/positive emotional response causes endorphins to kick-in, blood pressure to lower or stabilize, and leads to relaxed non-verbal cues. It’s science…I’m just sayin’.

Strategically, then, it doesn’t make sense to engage in a verbal battle – You don’t march your troops into battle tired and starved. If you know that holding someone in contempt as you try to converse with them will only stress you out, starve your brain and otherwise leave you open for attack, why would you do it?  

If you can, avoid difficult people at all costs. Sometimes, though, you can’t…and you have to find a way to engage with them in a positive manner. Here are seven successful ways you can engage with someone who really pushes your buttons:

7 VITs (Very Important Techniques…for conversing with difficult people)

1.       Remember: someone loves this jerk. Yes, I always say this to myself when I encounter someone who I really don’t care for. I imagine them hugging their mother and I think, “Well, if one person in this world doesn’t want to punch them in the face, maybe there is hope for them after all. Let me give it a try.”

2.       Don’t use “you” statements…only talk about “I”.

3.       Don’t use aggressive language – this could escalate to a physical situation quickly. Be confident and certain...but not aggressive.

4.       Don’t try to “win”…avoid a debate or back-and-forth dialogue.

5.       Ask clarifying questions and work to understand the other person’s perspective and goal for the conversation.

6.       Limit your time in the conversation if tensions are rising and you know you can’t handle the heat

7.       Set appropriate boundaries for time and location of the conversation – a dining room table is a bad spot for a heated conversation, for example.