Read an Excerpt
Perfect Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People
Hundreds of Ready-to-Use Phrases for Handling Conflict, Confrontations, and Challenging Personalities
By Susan F. Benjamin
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Susan F. Benjamin
All rights reserved.
What You Need to Know
Why Address Difficult People
Managing Your Expectations—and Theirs
Why confront, e-mail, or otherwise communicate with difficult people at work? People who, say, drive you crazy, cause work slowdowns, and make life miserable every time they can? Many people believe the reasons go something like this: "I want to put my foot down once and for all." Or "I've got to get these feelings off my chest." Or "I'm going to tell that guy what he can do with his attitude." And sometimes there are other, even less savory reasons.
But here's a reality check: The real reason to communicate with difficult people is to improve your work life and theirs, not to mention the lives of your boss, coworkers, and, most important, customers. Even when those difficult people are the customers. As for whether you like those people or they like you, whether you become bosom buddies or maintain a respectful distance is inconsequential.
Granted, you will need different strategies for communicating with different people. The angry customers must be calmed and controlled while the lethargic employees must be energized. You can use the following tips in all your work interactions, and they will boost your communication to the most successful level possible.
With that in mind, read the following seven imperatives and apply them no matter who is causing you trouble.
Top Seven Imperatives of Communicating with Difficult People
1. Be Objective
Objective language can be your best friend when communicating with difficult people, and it is often the only way to get the response you want. Trust me, it's helpful outside of work also—with difficult neighbors, children, and even friends.
So what is objective language? Say a coworker is disruptive. That's your subjective opinion. Will the coworker agree? Doubtful. But if you present objective facts and rely on what you saw and heard, then the true situation becomes clear and undeniable. Does your coworker talk too much at meetings? Stop in your office to chat ... on an hourly basis ... and break your work flow? With those facts at hand, now your coworker can identify the problem exactly.
Look at the difference between subjective and objective language here:
Subjective: You are irritating to other employees who want to get work done.
Objective: You interrupt people by dropping by their work space to chat.
Subjective: You're really annoying in meetings.
Objective: You need to stay in the meetings and talk only when the facilitator calls on you.
Subjective: You don't respect other people.
Objective: You routinely call other people derogatory names.
Even better, once the person can understand the problem objectively, he or she can find the solution. Call other people names? Well, stop doing it.
2. Use Examples
When discussing a person's bad behavior at work, the response you get may be "Huh?" as in "I have no idea what you're talking about," even though you've been objective and clear, and—face it—it's such an obvious problem everyone knows what you're talking about, even the cleaning staff. So use an example to illustrate what you mean. Let's get back to an example from the last section on objective language—" You need to stay in the meetings and talk only when the facilitator calls on you."
Assuming your coworker doesn't have a bladder problem, that's a fair request. Yet your coworker responds with an open mouth and hurt expression as if to say, "But I do sit in the meetings. I never miss a word." Your only recourse is to provide an example, such as "Yesterday, at the managers' meeting, you got up three times." Then, lest the coworker claim the event was a mere exception to otherwise great meeting etiquette, give another example: "And during my presentation last week, you were in and out at least two times."
If, rather than your coworker, this person happens to be your employee, record these examples. Be clear about names, dates, and other specifics. You may need them later.
3. Commit to the Accuracy Principle
Be accurate. Always. Say, for example, you accused that annoying coworker of walking out on meetings "about 10 times." Granted, you didn't literally mean 10 times—you were only trying to make a point. But, sadly, the point was lost in the exaggeration of the number. Are you a manager? Then accuracy is a must in your performance reviews too—especially with difficult employees. Being accurate can foster trust, motivate employees to change their behavior, and enhance the goodwill about everything from potential pay increases to awards.
Regardless of whether you're dashing off a quick e-mail or writing a formal written review, use exact, supportable, and, yes, objective language by addressing these questions:
* What was the degree of the behavior? How did you determine that?
* How often did it occur?
* What were the direct repercussions? How can you measure them?
* Did you or anyone else confront this problem before? When and how often?
4. Take Advantage of Venues
All forms of messages are not equal. People retain considerably more of the written word than the spoken word, provided that they actually read it. Still, in face-to-face discussions, you can get cues to help you refine or otherwise position your message, whether a quizzical expression, a smile, or a subtle shake of the head.
Here are a few pointers that can help.
* The first few words are critical: They're the ones people remember and will set a tone for the rest.
* Avoid unnecessarily formal language. It can sound unduly angry, cold, or alienating. Granted, you don't want to use syrupy phrases either. But keep the tone neutral or, if you dare, friendly.
* Have lots of points? Are you addressing a rebel employee who refuses to follow procedures? Use bullets, numbers, or steps. They're easy to see and impossible not to follow.
* Employees and coworkers hear only every fifth word or so, and that means you need to repeat key points throughout the discussion.
* Watch for body language—yours and your employee's or coworker's. Sit down to talk and see that your employee or coworker has crossed arms and an indirect gaze? This could signal hostility. But continue watching his or her body language throughout the discussion for signs that you're being effective. Watch your own body language too. Are you expressing fear or anger? Or openness about finding a solution and moving on?
Don't forget to take control of the environment around you. Want to give the impression of power? Then sit at the head of the table. Want to appear relaxed and conciliatory? Then sit at a seat across the table. Also, choose where you're meeting carefully. Meeting in a conference room? That's usually neutral space. A café signals a friendly space. An office? The power belongs to the person whose office you're in.
5. Follow Your Vision
There's no question that difficult people are a pain to be around—especially coworkers whom you see day after day after day. They create hostility, uneasiness, and problems. Half the time, they are the problem. And you may not like them. But in the end, all that matters is how they affect your work and your unit's work. So when taking a difficult person to task, conjure a vision of how the perfect situation would look. That vision could be small scale, like that guy who's always interrupting meetings. Your vision: to sit through meetings from beginning to end without interruptions. Or the vision could be large scale: for your unit to meet all of its financial goals, get great bonuses and extra paid time off, and have a friendly, energetic work environment ... then, when you're communicating with the difficult person, connect his or her behavior to that vision. This will turn a complaint into a serious work issue. Here are some examples:
Complaint: You're not a team player, which hurts every one of us.
Vision oriented: We want to increase sales by more than 75 percent this quarter. But since you've been late with the quotes four out of five times, we probably won't get close.
Complaint: You don't seem to realize that this isn't a social club. We just can't spend time hanging out and talking all day.
Vision oriented: If we're going to meet all our deadlines, as we discussed in October's meeting, we must limit our socializing to lunch breaks.
6. Keep Records
If you're a manager, you have one critical record stored away: the performance review. Make the most of this record. Don't be shy about discussing problems and concrete ways your employees can overcome them. If your problem is with a coworker, customer, or boss, you should still keep records of your interactions—you may need them later. Record events, plus the days and times they occurred. Have any witnesses? Write their names down too. Also, be sure to save
* E-mails and other messages from fellow employees.
* Notes about when the employee exhibited negative behavior.
* Notes about conversations you had with the employee.
* Follow-up e-mails to the employee about agreements you made in one-on-one discussions.
* Project management documents indicating how the employee affected work flow.
7. When in Doubt
Have questions? Do you find that difficult employee overwhelming or even frightening? Don't make the two biggest mistakes possible: using guesswork and avoiding the situation. Instead, talk to your manager or call your HR department. No question, they can help.
Perfect Phrases for Communicating with Difficult Coworkers
Communicating with coworkers can be strange. They're not exactly friends, although you do chat in the halls and know, for example, about their crazy kids and unfortunate divorces. They're not business partners, subordinates, or managers. And certainly, as much as you crave it, you can't tell them where to put their attitude on a bad day. So communicating with them is bound to be ... interesting. Challenging. And problematic.
Naturally you'd think somewhere along the line someone in a business class, graduate school, or even a creative writing course would have tipped you off about how to communicate with difficult coworkers. But no—you're thrust in the workplace with coworkers who drive you crazy, and there seems to be no right way to tell them to stop.
What's an employee to do? Here are three pointers:
1. Keep it professional: Coworkers keeping critical data to themselves? It could be that they want control of the project. Granted, that stinks, but it isn't about you personally. That means your response isn't to say you find them contemptible—a personal and unwise choice—but to emphasize the reason you are professionally entitled to the data.
2. Document as if your professional life depended on it—which, by the way, it might: That means write every agreement you make with your coworkers, even over coffee in the office kitchenette, and e-mail it to them. Then save a copy for yourself. Oh, and record everything else of consequence, even small consequence, and save that too. You never know when the notes of today will become career- saving content of tomorrow.
3. Use strategy: Communication is never just what you say, write, or project with body language. It contains layers and layers of innuendos, so you need to strategize. Sure, the words that rush to your mouth may be to tell your coworkers what maniacs they are—but don't do it. Decide what you want professionally; then strategize how to say it right. And what should drive that decision? The response that will ultimately help you, and your team, at work.
Not sure what to say? You did the right thing by turning to this part of the book. You'll find lots of perfect phrases for just about every brand of difficult coworkers, from gossips to chronic arguers, and some quick tips that will also help.
Your objective with unfriendly employees isn't to become bosom buddies, although that's always nice. Instead, you need to create a synergy so that you can work together—as professionals. Think your coworkers don't like you for a personal reason? The way you laugh? Your hairstyle? Or is it that you're outgoing and they're not? Be courteous and move on. But if you think you've offended your coworkers for some reason, find out why. Remember, make the discussion as objective as possible.
Statements to Avoid
* You're really being rude to me.
* I really hate how you're treating me.
* I used to think you were okay, but now I just think you're nasty.
* Do you dislike me for some reason? If so, you should tell me what it is.
* Do you have a problem with me?
* What's going on with you? You're like a cold fish these days, and it kind of stinks.
Statements to Use
When Coworkers Suddenly Get Cold
* I hope I haven't done anything to offend you.
* Would you like to discuss any issues with me?
* Did something happen that I don't know about?
* Have I said something you think is inappropriate?
* Is there anything I've done to obstruct this project? If so, I'd like to know what it is.
When Coworkers Are Rude or Unpleasant
* If you have an issue with me, let me know. Otherwise, I expect that you'll treat me with respect.
* I don't respond to that kind of language. Let me know when you're ready to talk.
* I think we need to discuss this project, but only in civil terms.
* If you want me to engage in this discussion, you must treat me respectfully.
* I assume you have something useful to say, but it's impossible for me to hear when you speak that way.
* We need to talk in a professional manner.
Coworkers Who Withhold
Coworkers may withhold information for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they're too busy. Or maybe they don't know the processes and procedures for passing it on. Or perhaps they're forgetful. Worse, they may be trying to get in the way of your professional advancement because they're jealous or want that position for themselves. No matter, you need to maintain as professional and objective a stance in getting that information from them—not once, but on an ongoing basis. Here's how.
Connect Your Request with a Professional Outcome
* Please send me the financial records for FY 06 so I can complete the audit.
* I need to have updates so that I can revise the policy procedure.
* Let me know about the pricing changes so that we can give the customer accurate information.
* Please forward the project plan so that I can assign the right people to each role and responsibility.
* We must have the missing data if we are to complete the project.
* If you don't send the meeting notes by 6:00, I cannot complete the presentation.
Show How Your Team Is Affected By the Situation
The if-then structure works well here:
* If we are to get the full budget, then you must send us ...
* If we are to make our deadline, then be sure to supply ...
* If our team is to work cohesively, then you must keep us updated.
Or use the if-then structure in reverse:
* If you provide the updated manual, then we can expedite the process.
* If you get us directions for the new tool, then we can communicate faster.
* If you tell us the plans in advance, then we can prepare the right documentation.
Use Specific Sentence Structures
Have a long, dreary history with withholding coworkers? Does everyone suffer as a result? Then it's helpful to use a sentence structure that goes something like this:
Action Outcome Soution
Here are a few examples:
* (action) Since you omitted two pages on last year, (outcome) we didn't get the grant, (solution) so this time, please provide everything we need.
* (action) Because you didn't get us the complete financials, (outcome) we missed the deadline last year. (solution) So please send all six statements by Friday.
Excerpted from Perfect Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People by Susan F. Benjamin. Copyright © 2008 by Susan F. Benjamin. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.