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Webucator's Free Working with Difficult People Tutorial

Lesson: Handling Conflict

Welcome to our free Working with Difficult People tutorial. This tutorial is based on Webucator's Working with Difficult People course.

A difficult person, particularly one who has a reactive personality, can be challenging to confront. Most people prefer to avoid confrontation and dislike uncomfortable situations. In this lesson, you will learn techniques to handle conflict.

Lesson Goals

  • Learn how to confront a difficult person.
  • Learn techniques for successful negotiations.
  • Learn when mediation is needed.
  • Learn how and when to applying formal consequences.

Confronting the Difficult Personality

A difficult person, particularly one who has a reactive personality, can be challenging to confront. Most people prefer to avoid confrontation and dislike uncomfortable situations.

Some interesting things about people with difficult personalities and behaviors are they:

  1. Do not always share these inhibitions.
  2. May even use conflict to their advantage.

There are five things to consider when confronting difficult individuals, and we will explore them now.

Safety Issues

The first and foremost consideration should always be safety. Always take into consideration whether or not the other person is:

  1. Irrational.
  2. Verbally abusive.
  3. Prone to physical outbursts.

If there is any doubt, take safety precautions. The following are important steps to take when safety is a concern.

Find a Watchdog

If there are any safety concerns, let somebody else know that the conversation could be heated. If another person knows about the concerns, he or she can keep an eye and ear out during the meeting.

To avoid sharing confidential information, the watchdog can be:

  1. A supervisor.
  2. A Human Resources Department representative.
  3. A company ombudsman.
  4. A person in a position of authority or confidentiality.

Open Doors

Keep an open door. Open doors minimize the likelihood that a person will demonstrate negative behaviors.

The best protection is prevention; planning the meeting space in advance will avoid:

  1. Closed-door meetings that prohibit quick escapes.
  2. Meeting in a room without free access to an exit.
  3. Sitting with the other person between you and the door.

Finding a place that is both private and yet allows an escape may be problematic. If it is and if safety is a concern, a location off site, such as a restaurant or coffee shop, may be an option.

The Nature of the Relationship

Conversations transpire differently depending on whether you are confronting:

  1. A person with greater authority.
  2. A peer.
  3. A subordinate.

Confronting a Higher Authority

Supervisors and others with authority may make final decisions, regardless of whether or not the decision is rational or seemingly beneficial.

If the confrontation is with a person holding a supervisory position, his or her decision will need to be respected, at least for the time being.

Most supervisors will:

  1. Listen to subordinates.
  2. Work out an agreement that works for all concerned.

But difficult supervisors are more likely to state their opinion and not compromise. In those situations a choice will have to be made to:

  1. Accept his or her decision.
  2. Escalate the issue to a higher authority.
  3. Address the issue with an outside authority (outside the department or outside the company).
  4. Leave the position.

This can be a difficult decision to make, but ultimately each person has to discern whether a situation is acceptable or not.

Confronting a Subordinate

If the confrontation is with a subordinate, the dynamics are reversed. In this situation the subordinate must take the position of accepting the supervisory decision. A supervisor has:

  1. The authority to make the final decision.
  2. The responsibility to make a decision that benefits:
    1. The company.
    2. The department.
    3. The work team.
    4. The workplace environment.

It is essential that a supervisor listen to the concerns of the subordinate, even if the subordinate is a difficult person. Even excessive complaints often have some bits of truth in them, and by listening for those bits of truth, a supervisor can make the wisest decisions. Final decisions should always:

  1. Follow company policy.
  2. Take into consideration the needs of all affected parties.

Confronting a Peer

Ideally, confrontation with a peer should be cooperative, if not collaborative. However, with a difficult person we can only hope for, but not expect cooperation.

Ideally, there will be equal power between the two parties, but often one person will have greater influential power because of support given through:

  1. The chain of command.
  2. Longevity.
  3. Friendships.
  4. Other reasons.

Communication between people of equal position can be a source of frustration because there is no obligation by either party to placate the others' desires.

In stalemates, the goal may change from resolution to fact-finding. Pull together enough information to take the issue to a person at a higher level.

Emotional Escalation

The best protection against an emotional outburst by another person is to manage one's own behavior and emotions. Not doing so pulls one into emotional exchanges and gives emotional power to the other person. If the conversation begins to get heated one should:

  1. Speak in a low tone.
  2. Check one's own emotions.
  3. Be aware of the other person's body language and voice intonations.
  4. Be watchful of one's own nonverbal expressions and body language.
  5. Place both chairs in comparable positions.
  6. Avoid any position of dominance.
  7. Check the tone of voice.
  8. Look the other person in the eyes.
  9. End the conversation if it gets uncomfortable.
  10. Not continue the conversation if there is a feeling of intimidation or fear.
  11. Not continue the conversation if there is emotional distress.
  12. Avoid histrionics (dramatic displays).

In a conversation with a difficult person, the goal is to guide the other person to understand a different perspective. Verbal strikes at the other person can repel rather than attract. Unchecked emotions lead to words that are:

  1. Hurtful.
  2. Insulting.
  3. Accusatory.
  4. Otherwise destructive.

An outcome of any meeting, even those with difficult people, should be an improvement in working relationships.

Confronting the Difficult Person

Duration: 5 minutes.

In this exercise, you will respond to the following questions about confronting difficult people.

  1. Which of the following may be beneficial when confronting a difficult person?
    1. Informing someone about the conversation.
    2. Offering refreshments.
    3. Speaking in low tones.
    4. Escalating the issue to a higher authority.
    5. None, it's not safe to confront difficult people.

  2. Which of the following minimize emotional escalation?
    1. Maintaining a position of power.
    2. Using neutral tones and body language.
    3. Directly pointing out where the other person is wrong.
    4. Dramatic displays.
    5. Rescheduling the meeting when feeling intimidated.



  1. A. Informing someone about the conversation, C. Speaking in low tones and D. Escalate the issue to a higher authority

  2. B. Using neutral tones and body language, and E. Rescheduling the meeting when feeling intimidated.

Personal Application for Confronting the Difficult Personality

Duration: 10 minutes.

In this exercise, you will consider the following questions.

  1. It's beneficial in all aspects of our lives to be able to manage emotions. Consider a time when you confronted a difficult person and became emotional during the process. Analyze the dynamics and situation.
    1. What could have been done to make that situation more successful?
    2. Log your emotions throughout the day. When you recognize your emotional state, are you able to change it?
    3. Practice emotion control:
      1. What can you think about that gives you happy emotions?
      2. What can you think about that gives you sad emotions?
      3. Practice separating yourself from a situation to bring your emotions to a neutral state.


    For this exercise, keep in mind what you have learned so far and consider your honest answers to these questions.

Negotiation Techniques

In the previous lesson we talked about negotiating boundaries. Here we'll address techniques and best practices for negotiation.

There are three parts of negotiation:

  1. Process, or how negotiation takes place. The process of negotiation is three-fold:
    1. Preparation.
    2. Negotiation.
    3. Conclusion.
  2. Behavior, including the relationship of the individuals.
  3. Substance, or what is being negotiated.


When entering into a conversation to talk about sensitive issues it is essential to be prepared. The more you know ahead of time, the better you can handle adversity.

Process: Know Your Resources

Think ahead about what alternative options are available should negotiations fail. Should an agreement not be reached with the difficult person, know in advance:

  1. What alternative solutions might fulfill the needs.
  2. What other steps can be taken.
  3. What policies, laws, and constraints regulate the situation.
  4. Who is available to offer support.

Process: Motivation

If possible, find out in advance what the other person's goal and underlying motivation are. Often, particularly with difficult personalities, what is said on the surface is only a part of what is desired.

Confrontation is more successful when the other person's motivation is understood and can be satisfied. If his or her motivation is:

  1. To improve the situation, negotiations will focus on change.
  2. Self-preservation, exhibited as a fear of change, negotiations will focus on the assurance that no harm will result.
  3. Self-promotion, negotiations will focus on the other person's worth.

Process: Conclusion

At the end of the negotiation, there are two essential action steps to be taken:

  1. A verbal summary within the meeting reiterating everything that was agreed upon.
  2. A written summary sent to all interested parties.

The written recapitulation will insure all parties are in agreement and will form documentation should it be needed.


Behavior includes:

  1. Words.
  2. Actions.
  3. Relationship between the parties.

The use of each of these in negotiations is deeply influenced by personality and emotion.

Behavior: Negotiation Styles

Most people fall into one of five negotiating styles, and unless a person is a trained negotiator, these styles relate closely to his or her personality. Understanding one's self and the other party can be a tool in negotiations. The five styles are described here:

  1. The accommodating person:
    1. Is aware of other people's emotional states and non-verbal communication.
    2. Enjoys helping other people.
    3. Places value on relationships.
    4. Tends to be emotionally sensitive.
  2. The avoiding person:
    1. Doesn't like conflict or negotiations.
    2. Avoids confrontation, making it hard to get a commitment from him or her.
  3. Difficult people are rarely collaborators. The collaborating person:
    1. Finds pleasure in working with others.
    2. Enjoys solving problems.
    3. Is good at brainstorming.
  4. The competing person:
    1. Negotiates to win.
    2. Is often a good negotiator.
    3. May be heartless in his or her negotiations.
  5. The compromising person:
    1. Is eager to get the job done.
    2. Rushes the process and thus make concessions easily.
    3. Is eager to find what is equitable for both parties.

Behavior: Emotion in Negotiations

Emotions play a powerful role in negotiation. The decision to agree is in part dependent on emotional factors.

Positive emotions often facilitate the agreement process and help maximize gains for both parties. A positive emotional effect:

  1. Increases confidence.
  2. Produces a tendency to cooperate.
  3. Increases the pleasure associated with the interactions.
  4. Reduces contentious behavior and aggressive tactics.
  5. Supports better decision making processes, including:
    1. More flexible thinking.
    2. Creative problem solving.
    3. A respect for others' perspectives.
    4. A willingness to take calculated risks.

Negative emotions can trigger intense and even irrational behavior, particularly in people who are predisposed to behave irrationally. Negative emotions can escalate conflict. A Negative emotional affect:

  1. Increases the use of competitive strategies.
  2. Reduces cooperation.
  3. Decreases the level of trust.
  4. Negatively affects judgment by:
    1. Narrowing the focus of attention.
    2. Changing the goal from agreement to retaliating.
    3. Increasing the likelihood of errors.
    4. Triggers self-centeredness.
    5. Increases the probability of rejecting profitable offers.


Substance includes the desired goal and any related logistics. Many of these related factors are nonessential, and may be compromised during negotiations.

Depending on the circumstance, these may include the:

  1. Who
  2. What
  3. When
  4. Where
  5. How

To know what can or cannot be compromised, one must understand the needs of both parties and be willing to sacrifice the non-essentials for the sake of the goal.

Substance: Understand Everyone's Needs

Negotiations should provide opportunity for both parties to fully present their desired outcomes and to fully understand each other's outcomes. To reach this point:

  1. Invite the other party to present:
    1. Information.
    2. Ideas.
    3. Positions.
  2. Formulate the solution so that it includes the issues presented by both parties whenever possible.
  3. Consider what can be traded so both parties feel they are receiving benefit.
  4. Explore alternative outcomes acceptable to both parties. For example, a situation in which a person delivering reports disrupts the workflow and demeans staff may be resolved by:
    1. Training in communication skills and attitude control.
    2. Delivering the reports through a different person, thus avoiding the negative interactions with the staff.

Substance: Win-win or Win-lose

A successful agreement is not one which achieves great results for one party. A successful agreement:

  1. Achieves good results.
  2. Maintains a working relationship with the other party.
  3. Leaves an open door for future negotiations if the end result was less than the desired result.

In a win-lose situation, particularly with a difficult personality, the other party will fulfill their part:

  1. Uncooperatively.
  2. Legalistically.

A win-lose agreement should only be considered is when there is no future relationship with the other party.


Duration: 10 minutes.

In this exercise, you will respond to the following questions about negotiation.

  1. The three parts of negotiation are
    1. Preparation
    2. Negotiation
    3. Substance
    4. Conclusion
    5. Process
    6. Behavior

  2. True or False:
    1. Negotiations should always conclude with a written contract.
    2. A successful agreement maintains a working relationship.
    3. Negative emotions can trigger irrational behavior.
    4. During negotiations parties should present information, ideas, and positions.

  3. Match the following:
    1. The accommodator
    2. The avoider
    3. The collaborator
    4. The competitor
    5. The compromiser
    6. Likes working with others.
    7. Are good negotiators.
    8. Is aware of non-verbal communication.
    9. Wants to find equity for both parties.
    10. Avoids confrontation.



  1. The three parts of negotiation are: C. Substance, E. Process, and F. Behavior
  2. True or False:
    1. Negotiations should always conclude with a written contract. False
    2. A successful agreement maintains a working relationship. True
    3. Negative emotions can trigger irrational behavior. True
    4. During negotiations parties should present information, ideas, and positions. True

  3. The answers are as follows:
    1. The accommodator and H. Is aware of non-verbal communication
    2. The avoider and J. Avoids confrontation
    3. The collaborator and F. Likes working with others
    4. The competitor and G. Are good negotiators
    5. The compromiser and I. Wants to find equity for both parties

Personal Application for Negotiation Techniques

Duration: 15 minutes.

In this exercise, you will...

  1. Reading through the five negotiating styles, which one fits your personality the most?
    1. Has your negotiating style limited your ability to successfully negotiate?
    2. Write down your negotiating strengths and weaknesses.
      1. What can you do to strengthen the weaker aspects and build win-win negotiating skills?


    Using what you've learned in this section, figure out which of the styles fits your personality the most and consider the questions. Think about how this affects past performance and how you'll use this information in the future.


In general, children are discouraged from tattling on other children. Parents do not want children to run to them every time another child does something he or she perceives as wrong. The reason for this is to teach the children:

  1. Not to be moral judge and jury of other children.
  2. To communicate with their peers.
  3. To resolve issues between the two parties.
  4. To find ways that to make both parties happy; in short: negotiate.

When the situation cannot be worked out between the two children, parents will intervene.

The same rules apply to adults. Adults should try to resolve issues between each other directly. However, there are times when issues just cannot be resolved between two parties.

A third-party mediator is needed when all attempts to work directly with the other party have failed, regardless of whether the barrier to resolution is caused by:

  1. A personality conflict.
  2. An abuse of power.
  3. Selfishness.
  4. A difficult personality.
  5. Any other situation in which the two parties are unable to find a win-win solution.

Choosing a Mediator

Before confronting a person that you know will be challenging to communicate with, one should research what the company's policies and procedures regarding conflict are, and whether there is a channel for mediation.

A mediator may be:

  1. A peer or colleague.
  2. A supervisor.
  3. An external third party.
  4. The organization's trained mediator, often located in one of these:
    1. Human Resources Department.
    2. Ethics Department.
    3. Ombudsman Program.

Formal mediators are trained to handle difficult situations. Mediators are trained to:

  1. Be neutral and impartial.
  2. Keep all things said in confidentiality.
  3. Provide a safe environment.
  4. Help check emotions and reduce outbursts in the conversations.
  5. Facilitate discussions toward resolution without detrimentally impacting personnel records.
  6. Help identify and reframe issues.
  7. Provide a resources such as:
    1. Applicable policies and procedures.
    2. A list of counselors.
    3. Educational information on communication.
    4. Other resources, as needed.

Many organizations have no official form of mediation. In organizations that do not provide mediators, a colleague may be able to do the mediation. This person should:

  1. Be agreed upon by the two parties.
  2. Strive to remain neutral.
  3. Be able to facilitate discussions.
  4. Put out every effort to keep communication open.
  5. Not be decision makers.


Duration: 15 minutes.

In this exercise, you will respond to the following questions about mediation.

  1. Which of the following is true?
    1. Mediators can stop people from being difficult.
    2. Maintain confidentiality.
    3. Mediators are trained decision-makers.
    4. Mediators are neutral.

  2. True or False:
    1. It is acceptable to ask a friend to be a mediator.
    2. A trained mediator must always be used in difficult situations.
    3. Formal mediators are trained to handle difficult situations.
    4. When a trained mediator is used, the issue is noted in the personnel records.
    5. Mediators provide resources.
    6. Mediators should be agreed upon by the two parties.
    7. Mediators should be friendly people.



  1. B. Maintain confidentiality and D. Mediators are neutral.

  2. The answers are as follows:
    1. It is acceptable to ask a friend to be a mediator. False
    2. A trained mediator must always be used in difficult situations. False
    3. Formal mediators are trained to handle difficult situations. True
    4. When a trained mediator is used, the issue is noted in the personnel records. False
    5. Mediators provide resources. True
    6. Mediators should be agreed upon by the two parties. True
    7. Mediators should be friendly people. False

Personal Application

Duration: 5 minutes.

In this exercise, consider the situations you are facing with difficult people at work. What would need to take place that would cause you to seek mediation?

Applying Formal Consequences

In those rare situations when all resources have been expended and no resolution has been found, formal consequences may need to be applied. Formal consequences take place when control is relinquished and the situation is handed over to another who is in authority.

Applying formal consequences is similar to enforcing one's boundaries, but at a higher, more intense level. Formal consequences use the systems that have been put in place to address unbearable circumstances.

Most organizations have a written policy that addresses the formal process for problems. The policy may direct employees to:

  1. Follow a complaint process with the Human Resources Department.
  2. Use an ombudsman program.
  3. Follow a grievance process.

If none of these are available, the first formal consequence becomes the other party's supervisor. From there, the issue is escalated through the supervisory chain of command.

Sometimes personalities are so intense and difficult that none of these steps resolve problems. In those situations, there may be an outside resource, which may include:

  1. Pursuing the issue through the judicial system.
  2. Filing formal complaints with accrediting or certifying agencies.
  3. Seeking external mediation services.
  4. Seeking assistance from labor advocacy organizations.


Because situations can escalate to these levels, it is wise to document steps that have been taken. Documentation demonstrates to others that you've done everything possible to resolve the situation and you've followed all stated processes. Documentation should include:

  1. Times and dates of every interaction in which negative behavior is demonstrated. Interactions may be:
    1. Phone calls.
    2. Formal meetings.
    3. Casual meetings in the hallway.
    4. Emails and other written communications.
  2. A summary of the inappropriate behavior that took place during those interactions.
  3. Witnesses who have seen the person's inappropriate behavior.
  4. An itemization of things done to resolve the situation, including:
    1. Boundaries and consequences that have been communicated and enforced.
    2. Compromises.
    3. Every attempt to resolve the situation.
    4. The process followed to find resolution.

Documentation is very time consuming, but it can be the best defense when outside assistance is solicited.

Applying Formal Consequences

Duration: 10 minutes.

In this exercise, you will respond to the following questions about formal consequences.

  1. Internal or External?
    1. Accrediting or certifying agencies.
    2. Labor advocacy organizations.
    3. Human Resources Department.
    4. Contractual mediation services.
    5. Grievance process.
    6. Ombudsman program.
    7. Going to court.

  2. Which of the following are records that should be documented?
    1. Times and dates of all interactions.
    2. A list of attempts at resolution.
    3. Irrational text messages.
    4. Times and dates of all interactions in which negative behavior was demonstrated.
    5. Boundaries communicated.
    6. Results of boundaries.
    7. Times when you've compromised.
    8. All of the above.


  1. Internal or External?
    1. Accrediting or certifying agencies: External
    2. Labor advocacy organizations: External
    3. Human Resources Department: Internal
    4. Contractual mediation services: External
    5. Grievance process: Internal
    6. Ombudsman program: Internal
    7. Going to court: External

  2. H. All of the above.