Become A Business Diplomat

Use these 8 tactful strategies to diffuse difficult people or situations.
Magazine Contributor
15 min read

This story appears in the May 1997 issue of . Subscribe »

Use these 8 tactful strageties to diffuse 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, , 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 . 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.

Sales & Marketing: Got Your Number?

Want a simple and inexpensive way to catch your customers' attention? Try a vanity phone number. A vanity phone number--which spells out words or phrases--can be an eye-catching addition to your marketing efforts.

DeWayne Adamson has a vanity phone number for his business. The company, Call of the Wild, in Mundelein, Illinois, builds custom motorcycles. When it came time to choose a phone number, Adamson wanted one that would readily identify his business and capture the feeling motorcycle riders get on their bikes. The company's phone number? (847) 970-WILD. Adamson uses the number in his marketing materials and believes it helps customers remember his business. "It's hard to forget," he says.

How do you get a vanity number for your business? Before you call your local phone company to set up your business service, play around with several word ideas. Then, translate the letters of the word into various numeric combinations. One easy way to do this is to visit the free Bitfire Public Phone Number Mnemonic Service on the Internet ( Input a word, and you'll get a quick list of all numeric combinations spelling out that word. Then, just call your local phone company and ask if any of those combinations are available in your exchange (the first three numbers of a phone number). In most cases, there will be no extra charge for selecting a number of your choice.

Getting a toll-free vanity number is trickier. Many 800 and 888 vanity numbers have already been taken. Start with a call to a toll-free-number service provider, like AT&T's Small Business Services (800-222-0400), and ask if the number you want is still available. They'll verify availability in the national toll-free-number database--a free service that takes about a week. If the number is still available, there will be no extra cost to use it in conjunction with your toll-free service. If the number you want has already been taken, you'll have to come up with another choice. Try alternate spellings of the word you want. For example, Adamson might have used WYLD if WILD was no longer available.

Another way to get a vanity phone number is to contact a company that leases toll-free vanity numbers. One such company is Dial800, L.P. (800-DIAL-800). According to company president Scott Richards, his company has external rights to a wide range of vanity numbers suitable for small businesses. Costs to use one of Dial800's numbers start at about $99 per month. For most small companies, the best bet is to investigate the free sources of vanity numbers first. --Carolyn Z. Lawrence

Legal Ease: Legal Help Online

Internet law sites cannot spring you from the pokey. They can, however, answer many legal questions quickly, easily and at no cost. If you are starting a business and need information on which business structure is best for you, help is only a few keystrokes away. And, if you need a legal form, you can get it free online. The six sites reviewed here provide free legal expertise of interest to small-business owners. With any luck, they may help you avoid a day in court.

1. Nolo Press ( For 26 years, Nolo Press has been the leading publisher of legal self-help information. If you want to handle routine legal matters yourself, this site will prove invaluable. Nolo Press provides many free articles at their Web site, such as "Avoiding Legal Problems When You Run a Small Business." The site also sells books, tapes and software that are designed for the layman.

2. The 'Lectric Law Library ( A visit to this site is like walking into your own law library. Its information runs the gamut--from getting business credit and going to small claims court to sexual harassment guidelines.

3. Court TV Small Business Law Center ( Court TV's Web site offers a variety of small-business articles and forms. One interesting feature is the free "Lawyer Check," which enables you to find out if your prospective lawyer has had problems with your state's bar association.

4. The Legal Survival Newsletter ( This law site offers free subscriptions to their newsletter, which contains well-written and succinct articles of interest to entrepreneurs. Also available are free pamphlets and downloadable legal forms.

5. Legaldocs ( You can fill in the blanks at this interactive site and immediately print your final, ready-to-use legal forms. The interactive features at this site are well-designed and easy to use.

6. FindLaw ( One of the most comprehensive legal resources on the Internet, FindLaw has law-journal abstracts, full text cases, government law information, law links--more law information than you will likely ever need. Fortunately, the subject index and internal search engine are easy to use, making this huge site simple to navigate. --Charles Kelly

Can You Manage?...Learning To Delegate

Are you working harder and not getting more done? Are you so consumed with daily tasks that you have little time left for planning? Do your employees defer all decisions to you? If so, maybe it's time you learned to delegate.

Dave Unowsky, owner of the Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota, believes delegating is a "matter of practicality." It's the only way he could expand his business into a $3.5 million-a-year operation which requires a staff of 43. "There comes a point in the growth of your small business where you can't make all the decisions," he says. "If you try to, it's a sure way to have a nervous breakdown."

Unowsky, who admits to experiencing pangs of fear the first few times he turned a key task over to an employee, says delegating can benefit both parties. "Delegating frees you, the owner, to do more planning and to concentrate on the big picture of running your business. At the same time, it also gets your employees more involved in their work. They'll like their jobs better, have a clearer understanding of your operations, and provide better customer service," explains Unowsky, whose employees regularly select and purchase new stock and handle the store's advertising and accounting.

Want to take some of the load of running your business off your shoulders? Here are five key steps you can take to start delegating today:

1. Adjust your attitude. Probably the biggest hurdle is accepting the notion that you can share the responsibility of running your business with your employees. This means giving up such beliefs as "Only I can do it right," or "By the time I explain what I want done, I could have done it myself." Giving up control isn't always easy, but it's the first step toward successfully delegating.

2. Identify tasks. Break the task you plan to delegate into individual steps so you can clearly explain to an employee what you want done. Explain the value or goal of each task to your employees so they can get a sense of how their work will contribute to the flow of the business.

3. Set limits. Clearly outline your expectations. When is the project due? What level of quality do you require? Employees who know what's expected of them will perform their work more efficiently and with a better sense of purpose.

4. Let them fly. Once you've explained what you want done, let your employees decide how they'll approach the task. An employee might not approach the task as you would--which can be a real plus. As Unowsky has learned, "Different is not necessarily worse. It might be better."

5. Try bigger assignments. As you become more comfortable with delegating, consider giving greater responsibilities to your employees. Unowsky involves his employees in the hiring process. After he conducts initial interviews, two of his employees conduct the second interviews. The three then make a collaborative hiring decision. Delegating tasks, says Unowsky, "is a great way to involve employees in your business--and to make your job a lot easier." --C.G.

For Your Information

Want to develop your skills or managing and coping with ? Consider these helpful resources:

  • Dealing with People You Can't Stand, by Rick Kirschner and Rick Brinkman (McGraw-Hill, $12.95, 800-722-4726). Kirschner offers a variety of practical skills for handling difficult people.

  • Handling the Difficult Employee, by Marty Brounstein (Crisp Publications Inc., $10.95, 800-442-7477). Brounstein provides a step-by-step primer on how to detect and resolve employee-performance problems.

  • Does Someone at Work Treat You Badly?, by Dr. Leonard Fedler (Putnam Berkley Publishing Group, $5.50, 800-788-6262). Fedler tells you how to create emotional distance, prepare effective responses, and familiarize yourself with other techniques to deal with difficult people.

  • Solving People-Problems on The Job, by Sam Deep and Lyle Sussman ( Briefings, $59, 800-888-2086). This 15-minute video features effective coping advice from two top management experts, including how to develop better listening skills and how to model the behavior you desire.

  • The Manager's Short Course: A Complete Course in Leadership Skills for The First-Time Manager, by Bill and Cher Holton (John Wiley & Sons, $17.95, 800-225-5945). The book features a "Conflict Resolution Styles Questionnaire" to assess your personal style in handling difficult people and situations.

Contact Sources

Call of the Wild, 325 W. Townline Rd., Mundelein, IL 60060, (847) 970-WILD.

Colt Safety Inc., 8300 Manchester Rd., St. Louis, MO 63144, (314) 961-4414.

Dial800, L.P., 9301 Wilshire Blvd., #206A, Beverly Hills, CA 90210, (800) DIAL-800.

Dr. Rick Kirschner, P.O. Box 896, Ashland, OR 97520, (541) 488-2992.

Hungry Mind Bookstore, 1648 Grand Ave., St. Paul, MN 55105,

The Joy of Cookies, 1200 K St., #6, Hyatt Regency Plaza, Sacramento, CA 95814, (916) 447-1450.


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