Dealing with difficult people is a skill. Managing them effectively involves a number of key principles:
1. Controlling yourself
If you allow yourself to get sucked into an emotionally charged situation driven by someone who is in a negative state of mind, then things are likely to get worse. Strong emotions lock attention in an “all or nothing” way and limit access to your conscious (thinking) brain, which in turn makes it harder to think, negotiate and communicate effectively. One of the best ways to control your own emotional level is to use the 7/11 breathing technique described in this month’s article on stress and anxiety. The more you do something, the more deeply it is embedded into your brain and the more quickly and effectively it will work, so really practising this technique will stand you in good stead when trying to stay calm and in control.
2. Building rapport
Rapport building involves consciously, but subtly, mirroring or matching the other person’s body language, intonation (speed and pitch of delivery defines your emotional tone) and words. This gives the subconscious message to the other person that you are communicating well and in harmony. Communication happens 55% through body language, 38% through the way you use your voice and only 7% through the words you actually use. When you are speaking on the telephone, the other person will be paying more attention to your intonation than normal, given that there is no body language to “read”, so it’s even more important to be especially careful with this during difficult telephone calls. Of course you would not mirror any aggressive body language of the other person, but if that person is standing and you are sitting down, slowly standing and turning towards him or her, ideally at a 45-degree angle, would show respect (standing quickly or facing the person directly, on the other hand, can be interpreted as confrontational). Likewise, meeting the other person’s emotional tone halfway if he or she is very worked up will help rapport. There is nothing worse than speaking really slowly and quietly to a person who is speaking quickly and loudly. Once rapport is established, you can start to slow and calm things down.
3. Listening to understand
The other person needs to know that you are listening, and that you understand his or her feelings, perceptions and the problems that underlie his or her position. Using what is called “active listening”, by providing a response such as, “I can see that this has been really difficult for you”, gives the other person your full attention and allows you to check that you have understood properly and that you empathise. Validation of feelings leads to a lowering of emotional arousal and will help to calm the other person down. Ask the other person questions that will help explain what he or she means if anything is unclear, and periodically summarise what the person has said to check that you have understood; say something like, “What I would like to do is summarise what we have discussed to make sure I have understood this correctly”. Use the other person’s name from time to time.
4. Agreeing upon the next steps
Before the conversation ends, be clear about what will happen next and when, taking care to agree only to steps which are wholly within your control, and then make sure that what has been agreed upon actually happens.