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Become A Business Diplomat

Use these 8 tactful strategies to diffuse difficult people or situations.

Use these 8 tactful strageties to diffuse difficult people or situations.

Some people you meet in business are a pain in the neck. Like the unyielding client who demands that his project be completed overnight, but lets your bill go unpaid for 90 days. Or the vendor who promises immediate door-to-door delivery and shows up three days later. Or your star salesperson who's terrific with customers--when she's not fighting with her boyfriend.

Should you lash out with an angry retort? Refuse future business? Fire your employee? Find another line of work? Hardly. Being in business means dealing with all types of people, including difficult personalities that sometimes make us wish we'd never opened for business. As Dr. Rick Kirschner, an Ashland, Oregon, business consultant and the co-author of Dealing with People You Can't Stand (see sidebar below for ordering information), sees it, difficult people are hard to avoid. "They're everywhere, because they are us," he says. "With the changing environment in which we're working and trying to raise our families, stress enters the picture and, as a result, people act badly. It's inevitable, it's part of human nature."

While you can't totally eliminate crabby, demanding and uncompromising people from your life, you can learn to deal with them and enjoy more harmonious and productive working relationships. "There's almost always a tactic that will work," Kirschner points out. Here are eight tactics you can use to remain cool and in control when dealing with difficult people:

1. Don't take it personally. Ever have a client fly off the handle at you for something that wasn't your fault? Ever have a receptionist treat you rudely when you called for an appointment to meet with his boss? More than likely, the person is angry at the situation, not you.

"Don't take it personally," Kirschner suggests. "Sometimes people have other things on their minds besides you. Most difficult behavior is a response to stress or some kind of perceived threat. Understand what really makes that person feel threatened, so you're in a position to deal with their behavior." When you clearly understand you're not the cause, you can work from a position of strength and resolve the situation.

Kirschner tells the story of Max, an elderly man who supplemented his retirement income working part-time in a diner. One day, Kirschner watched a teenage customer verbally thrash Max for what he perceived was slow service. Max looked at the boy and said, "Thank you, young man, for being honest with me about how you feel." Stunned by the response he'd received, the teenager paid his bill and quietly left the diner. Max didn't take the situation personally. As he told Kirschner, "I told myself that the man was doing the best he could with the limited resources he had on board."

2. Get in step. One way to let someone know you're not combative is to mirror his mannerisms. If someone is speaking in short, clipped sentences, talk to the individual in the same manner. If someone explains a situation in great detail, respond by slowing down and spelling everything out in a logical, sequential manner. "It's a way of blending with your customer and letting him know you want to communicate," Kirschner explains. Getting in step with your antagonist produces an important psychological message. "No one cooperates with anyone who seems to be against them, so find ways of signaling to people that you are on their side. This way, you reduce the opportunity for conflict."

3. Practice active listening. Problems with customers are generally problems in communication. When a customer expresses a complaint or concern, listen carefully. You might gain important information on how to improve your business or offer even better customer service.

You can sharpen your listening skills by practicing active listening. "Nod as if you understand the individual and then repeat what the person has told you in his own words, like `So it's the way we run this place that bothers you?' That way, your customer will know he's been heard," Kirschner says, "and you both can fill in the blanks about what is going on."

4. Agree with the person. "You're right." "I understand your position." "I can see how upsetting a situation like that could be." Statements like these, in which you acknowledge a person's point of view without taking responsibility for the situation, are extremely powerful. They can easily disarm an angry individual and put an immediate end to a potential confrontation. Who wants to continue fighting with a passive individual?

5. Remain positive. Christine Bierman, president and chief executive officer of Colt Safety Inc., an industrial-safety-supply distributorship in St. Louis, diffuses potentially angry encounters by remaining positive. "I have a positive mental attitude all the time, no matter what. When a person is mean and angry, I come back with a very positive statement. Sometimes, I even stare them down," Bierman explains. "I put myself on a more positive and spiritual level, let people have their say, and then try to reason things out."

Bierman instructs her employees not to let an unpleasant encounter with a customer or vendor upset the work mood in the office. "It rarely happens," she says, "but if an employee has a conversation with someone who turns out to be difficult, I tell my employee, `Don't breathe that anger here. It breeds negativity and we can all get burned.' "

Kirschner offers another tip: Instead of reinforcing someone's poor self-image by telling the person, "That's the trouble with you, you're always so negative," turn the situation around by saying, "This isn't like you. You're reasonable and as capable of talking about this as anyone I know." Explains Kirschner, "Most people will jump at the chance to agree with a better concept of themselves."

6. State your limits. Problems develop when we think we can't tell a person "no." If you have work requirements you can't change or production standards you won't bend, make this information known. For example, when a vendor fails to deliver your products on time, tell him in clear and specific terms what your expectations are. Don't be afraid to let him know you might need to find a different vendor if he can't meet your needs.

7. Humor them. If you want to quickly disarm a difficult person, humor him. Tell a good joke or poke fun at yourself. Most people would rather smile than frown--give them an opportunity to do so.

Sometimes, you can joke with a customer and also give him important information about what he perceives to be a problem or annoyance. It's not uncommon for Chris Norman, president of The Joy of Cookies in Sacramento, California, to get comments from customers about the price of his cookies. "People will tell me they could make chocolate chip cookies at home for less than what I charge," says Norman. "I just humor them and tell them, `I hope you can.' Then I tell them how I use real butter in my cookies, and how my butter bill jumped 70 percent last summer. When I tell them I spend $2,500 a month for Nestle's chocolate chips, they're surprised, and I get a smile out of them."

8. Prepare effective comebacks. If you get anxious and weak-kneed when someone verbally attacks you, prepare a few responses. You can rehearse these lines beforehand so you'll be able to deliver them during the heat of an encounter. For example, you might say, "Time Out! I want to hear what you're saying, but I must ask you to slow down a little." Or, "Let's talk about this situation. You go first. I won't interrupt. I'll see if I have any questions when you're done." Statements like these are non-threatening, and signal to an individual that you're interested in hearing his point of view, no matter how difficult he is.

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This article was originally published in the May 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Become A Business Diplomat.

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