Communicating with Difficult People: Some Simple Tips

by Rosemarie Perla

“You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.”

-Indira Gandhi

This is the title of a workshop that I frequently give when asked to speak to a group of people within a business or organization.  Why?  Because each and every day we are all faced with challenging people and difficult work situations.  Keeping our sense of purpose, intent and clear communication skills are all points to remember in such situations.

A review:

  1. Stop wishing that they were different: Spending time “wishing” that the difficult person or situation would go away is a waste of energy. Better to begin formulating, and practicing, a plan of action.  Shift away from blame. Move to managing and changing what YOU can to work with the person.
  2. Get some distance between you and the difficult situation/behavior:  Gain perspective, see the patterns and understand the source in order to begin formulating a strategy.  Gaining distance helps free you for a more productive and caring response.
  3. Focus on changing your own behavior: Step out of the scenario and see how your own behavior was elicited by what you thought the other person had or had not done. Remember:  you can only change you.
  4. Formulate a plan: Devise a strategy and, remember the behavior of human beings is highly interactional. Difficult people tend to act in ways that manage to get the worst out of everyone—but they also have positive responses in their repertoire.  Structure the interaction so as to encourage positive, more productive response so to cope more successfully with that individual.

Perl: Practice clear communication skills when dealing with a difficult person or situation.  Think of the word  –  STABEN when communicating:

S= Go to the source. Avoid talking to those who are NOT part of the issue (unless it is to get clarity, gain insight or support).  Communicate directly with the person with whom you are having difficulty.

T= Time and Place. Pick a private and safe place that is comfortable for all parties.

A=Amicable. Present an amicable approach. Smile. Start the conversation with a compliment or, empathize with the person, see the world through their eyes.

B=Objective Behavior. Start with describing the behavior as an objective phenomena-just the facts.  “When you did not introduce me at the meeting…” or “Yesterday at 5:00pm you asked to borrow the files and as of today they are not returned…”

E=Emotion. State clearly your emotion as a result of the behavior.  “I became angry and confused…”  “I was disappointed…” Use “I” communication.


N=Need. State clearly what your need, desire or request.  “I am requesting that you introduce me at the meetings as your associate. “ Or  “I need to have the files returned to my desk by 3:00 PM this afternoon.”

Finally, attempt to create or discover a common purpose or a way that they two of you can work together to achieve the same goal.  If no common purpose can be found, sometimes it is best to walk away. Accept the person as they are.

Take away: In any difficult situation or in a conversation with a difficult person, maintaining inner balance and managing your stress is most crucial.  Practice the STABEN method, a good communication tool no matter with whom you are communicating.  Get some distance and, remember-don’t take anything personally!


Servan-Schreiber, David.  The Instinct to Heal. Rodale Press, 2004.

Rosenberg, Marshall.  Non-violent Communication, Puddler Dancer Press, 1999.



Leadership and Professional Executive Coaching
In my role as an Executive Coach, I see a lot of very talented business owners and leaders who are cracking under the pressure and responsibilities of extremely demanding jobs. They want to make a big impact but are being pulled in every direction, losing themselves within the large system in which they must operate.
The stress of it weighs them down, feeding negative thinking and making it harder for them to keep a bird’s eye view, mental agility, and balance that true leadership requires.