How to Shape Up that Angry Difficult Person

“You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships every day. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.”
Epicurus, Greek philosopher


How to deal with difficult peopleConfession Time: I enjoy a few programs on TV. In particular, my wife and I enjoy finding a great drama series and watching several episodes in one night, getting caught up in the story.

However … and this is Complaint Time … I find many of the sit-coms offensive. Most of their so-called humor is based on sarcasm and put downs.

For example, some of the sitcoms recently used such lines as:

  • Not the brightest crayon in the box now are we?
  • Do I look like a people person?
  • I pretend to work. They pretend to pay me.
  • YOU!! Off my planet!
  • Did the aliens forget to remove the probe?
  • And your crybaby whiny opinion would be..?
  • How many times do I have to flush before you go away?
  • Aw, did I step on your poor little bitty ego?
  • How do I set laser printer to stun?
  • When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.
  • Earth is full..GO HOME!
  • I’m not tense, just terribly, terribly alert!

Of course, viewers often laugh when they hear such lines, but I know that such talk can devastate the emotional health and relational connections of just about anyone … if they’re not filled with unshakeable self-esteem and appropriate assertive skills.

In real life, in your life, perhaps, you may have become the brunt of other people’s inappropriate remarks, anger, or hostility. Or you may have to work with or around someone whose behavior is unacceptable.

So let me suggest a few ways you can deal effectively with those people in those situations.


1. Use assertive confrontation with people who are not behaving appropriately.

When you need to confront someone without him or her getting too defensive, try assertive confrontation. Look and sound firm, but also look and sound like you want to make this a win-win situation. Be brief. Get to the point. And be specific.

Assertive confrontation has four elements.

1) An “I-statement” of feelings.
Indicate your feelings about the other person’s behavior. Aim for clarity and emotional restraint. Use wording such as “I feel confused when you … or … I get angry when …”

2) The “when you” description of unacceptable behavior.
Describe what happened. Describe the other person’s behavior. Describe what he/she has been saying or doing. It might sound like this: “When I saw you give incorrect information to that customer … or … When you told me you would give me the project folder but didn’t …”

3) The “because” description of cost.
Describe the effect of the other person’s behavior on you. Describe what their behavior is costing you. For example, “Because that caused me to lose the sale … or … Because it makes my job take twice as long …”

4) The “want” statement of requested behavior change.
Specify one behavior change you want the other person to make. Ask for agreement. And indicate a willingness to compromise. You could say, “What I’d like you to do is … What would help me is … but I’m open to another idea as long as it solves the problem.”

Let’s say someone at work is not doing their full share of the work and you feel forced to pick up the slack for that person. An assertive confrontation, using all four elements might sound like this. “I get upset when you leave several customer orders hanging in the air because your customer complaints get rolled over to me when you’re not here. I’m forced to work late to finish up those orders. I want you to communicate to your customers exactly when they can expect to receive their shipments.”

The great thing about this technique is the fact that people can’t argue with you. You are simply stating clearly observable behaviors that are not working. The other person can’t argue with your feelings; you know what you feel and he doesn’t. The other person can’t argue with the description of his behavior; you saw what you saw. The other person can’t argue with the cost of his behavior; you and you alone know how his behavior is affecting you. And your request for a behavior change may not be what the other person wants to do, but your desire for new and better behavior is non debatable as well.

In other cases, the difficult person may attack you. In that case, I suggest that you …


2. Empathize.

As author Gary Sheely says, “Sooner or later someone is going to be unhappy with you and initiate an angry confrontation. Someone will respond angrily to a request that you have made and become belligerent. In that moment you will have a choice of behaviors.”

Absolutely. You can escalate the conflict and anger. You can respond to the verbal attack with an attack of your own. You can meet force with force. If you’re in the mood for a good fight, go ahead and good luck.

Your other choice is to deflate and defuse the other person’s anger. You do that by empathizing and then paraphrasing.

And professional empathy can perform communication miracles … partly because that’s the last thing the upset person is expecting to hear.

All you do is make it obvious that you are listening by using good attention behaviors, such as leaning forward, maintaining good eye contact, and nodding to show you are following along. Let the other person finish his comments without being interrupted. And don’t counter or contradict what he is saying, even though you may desperately want to do so.

In a word, you “empathize.” You respond by saying something that indicates you understand how he is feeling, something like “Sounds like our new policy is causing some real problems for you” or “Looks like you’re pretty upset about this.”

The wonderful thing about empathy is the fact that this is the only way you can respond to an angry person and be appreciated for it. After all, you are making sure you understand exactly what the other person is thinking and feeling. You are showing that you care enough to work at the communication process. And if you misinterpreted something, you’re giving the other person the chance to clear things up. All pretty positive stuff.

The other advantage to empathizing is the fact that it eventually takes the focus off the other person’s anger. As you paraphrase what you heard, the other person is now listening to you, because you are talking in terms of his interests. You have taken control of the encounter; you are talking. They are listening.

Difficult people and difficult behaviors are a given at work and in life. But you can still be relationally effective in those situations if you use assertive confrontation and empathy.



Which of the two skills are you better at? Using assertive confrontation or using empathy? How will you improve your use of the others skill?