Tips for Communicating with Difficult People

African American man pointing at a white man in a heated discussion.

We all have difficult people in our lives. And communicating with difficult people can be especially hard. Sometimes these people are strangers that we encounter at the grocery store. And sometimes they are our own friends or family members.

Whoever it may be, there are some tools to develop when dealing with these kinds of people. Barbara Markway PhD, gives us 20 Expert Tactics for Dealing with Difficult People.

  1. Listen– try to hear what they are really upset about. Listening is key when trying to de-escalate a situation quickly.
  2. Stay Calm– if you can see the situation getting out of hand quickly, stay as calm as possible. Often meeting anger with anger, or coming back defensive with a difficult person, will likely make the situation worse.
  3. Don’t Judge– try not to judge this person. Sometimes a person reacts with anger or is unreasonable when they are going through something and don’t know how to express it.
  4. Reflect respect and dignity toward the other person– always keep the situation as level and even as possible. Belittling or speaking down to the difficult person, will not solve any issues quicker.
  5. Look for the hidden need– what is really going on with this person? Are you able to figure out what they are really so upset about?
  6. Look for others around you who might be able to help– Sometimes bringing in another person can diffuse a situation.
  7. Don’t demand compliance– recognize that this person has the right to feel upset and angry. Even though this might not be the way you would have expressed it, trying to tell someone to “calm down” never works.
  8. Saying, “I understand,” usually makes things worse– trying to empathize with the person can go a long way. This person is upset or angry because they are not feeling heard, or might need something they do not know how to ask for. Saying you understand will often show the person you care about the outcome.
  9. Avoid smiling, as this may look like you are mocking the person– even when someone is being ridiculous, smiling or laughing can make you seem insensitive.
  10. Don’t act defensively- it is easy to take things personally when you are dealing with a difficult person. Try to understand their side, and communicate as effectively as possible to make them hear your side.
  11. Don’t return anger with anger– this often just adds fuel to the fire.
  12. Don’t argue or try to convince the other person of anything– acting defensively, raising your voice, or returning the expressed emotion will just make the other person angrier and the solution to the problem further away.
  13. Keep extra space between you and the other person– make sure you give this person enough physical space so that they feel safe and respected during this encounter.
  14. Saying, “I’m sorry,” or, “I’m going to try to fix this,” can go a long way toward defusing many situations.
  15. Set limits and boundaries- listening and understanding is important in dealing with a difficult person. But you also have a right to speak up for yourself if they are speaking to you disrespectfully.
  16. Trust your instincts– If you feel like this is a lose-lose situation, tell the person you should talk about this another time when you are both a little more calm. And if you feel like you might be in danger, get out of there as soon as possible.
  17. One response does not fit all– everyone reacts in a different way. And not everyone can be reasoned with. Understand that you will have to adapt to different situations when dealing with difficult people.
  18. Debrief– afterwards, try talking to someone or writing out what happened. This can help you deal with the situation in a healthy manner.
  19. Discharge your own stress– going for a walk, or taking a moment for yourself after these types of encounters can really help you get back on track.
  20. Give yourself credit for getting through an uncomfortable situation.