Confronting the Difficult Personality

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Confronting the Difficult Personality

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.


This tutorial is based on Webucator's Working with Difficult People Course. We also offer many other Business Management Training courses. Sign up today to get help from a live instructor.