Communicating with Difficult People: Some Simple Tips

Posted on November 15, 2009

“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.

What does an executive coach do?

Posted on October 29, 2009

“Let him that would move the world, first move himself”


Executive coaches work more or less exclusively with senior people from organizations.  They work with clients to achieve speedy, increased and sustainable effectiveness in their lives and careers through focused learning.  The coach’s sole aim is to work with the client to achieve all the client’s potential- as defined by the client.

In today’s competitive work and economic environment where business people find themselves, Coaches aid clients in keeping that edge needed for succeeding in business and in leading others.

Coaches carry this out this by generating positivity in clients:

  • Helping them to identify what makes them flourish
  • Developing their capacity and resources for successful change and,
  • Facilitating processes designed for successful change.

Simply, what is this process like?   Executive coaches meet with clients and, through a series of assessments and questions designed to uncover their purpose, values and strengths, help them to speak what they want to carry out in their work life.  Examples of this may be:  managing staff’s performance, meeting productivity metrics, uncovering ways to become more inspired and energized to meet performance expectations, etc.  Next coaching assists them in creating a vision of what they want: how it looks and feels – now and in the future.  This leads to setting a plan of action and frameworks for supporting this plan.  Coaches hold their clients accountable to doing what they say they want and identifying what gets in the way when expectations aren’t met. Along this journey of performance enhancement the client may ask for specific skill instructions for behavioral change.  And, they more often co-create with the coach a framework for uncovering their own brilliance and capacity for growth in their chosen life’s work.

Take away: What are your strengths that help you to flourish as a business leader?  Go to and take the VIA strengths survey.  Consider how you might use these strengths each day in your work environment to move you toward the vision of success that you have set for yourself.


Diane Coutu and Carol Kaufman, “The Realities of Executive Coaching”,  Harvard Business Review,  January 2009.

Rogers, Jenny, Coaching Skills:  A Handbook 2nd Edition, McGraw Hill, 2004.

Notes from the 2nd Annual Harvard Conference: “Coaching in Medicine and Leadership”, Boston, Mass., September 2009.

Positive Psychology-The theory behind Executive Coaching

Posted on September 28, 2009

“Positive emotions are not trivial luxuries, but instead might be critical necessities for optimal functioning.”

— Barbara Fredrickson

Positive Psychology is the study of what makes us flourish and what makes life worth living.   I attended the 2nd Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital’s “Coaching in Medicine and Leadership” Conference which was held on September 25 and 26 2009.  This conference had many scholars speaking on new research in positive psychology.   Unlike traditional psychology which, in the past explored pathology and treatment – Positive Psychology focuses on optimal performance and ways to enhance the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people.  Positive Psychology is the theory that underlies the field of coaching.  Coaches explore ways and create conditions to contribute to their client’s flourishing and optimal performance.

Take away: A Positive Psychology exercise suggested by Martin Seligman, PhD, a leader in the field:   At the end of the day, think of 3-4 things that you are grateful for that happened during the day AND ask yourself how did you contribute to making that good thing happen?


“Positive Psychology- Science at the Heart of Coaching.”  Carol Kauffman, PhD, Coaching in Medicine and Leadership, Harvard Coaching Conference, September 2009.

Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman. Simon and Schuster, 2002.

Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson, 2009

Creative thinking and positive emotion

Posted on August 31, 2009

There are, at least, TWO ways to relate to anything:  a small minded way and a large minded way. Choose large mind.”

John G. Sullivan

Open up the lens of your thinking by choosing “large mind”.   A helpful image to consider when your thoughts, under stress, are going down the “psycho path”:  when we feel upset, scared, angry, or generally thinking negatively.  Soon, pessimistic recourse is all that we can imagine.  Consider the comic from the New Yorker magazine: A person is walking through the woods and comes to a fork in the road—one path is marked “scenic path” and the other is marked “psycho path”.  Choose the scenic path of large mind, which can offer a way to shift into a perspective that permits integrative, insightful and creative thinking.

Take away: A colleague of mine, Dr. Lynn Johnson suggests a method called “Shifting up” when confronted with stressful situations, made up of three steps:  Shift, Recall and Ask:

1.    Shift from stressful thoughts to breathing.  Breathe in slowly for 30 seconds and focus on your heart beating.
2.    Recall a positive situation and emotion where you felt peaceful, confident and secure or genuine love for someone.
3.    Ask yourself, “What is the highest and best way to handle this situation?”  Listen to your heart, a change of feeling, a thought from the frontal lobe of your brain (where advanced insight comes from). Trust what comes and do it.

Creative thinking and positive emotionOur challenging work environments require intelligence and creativity.  Being your best necessitates practicing methods to connect with your innate wisdom.  I invite you to practice some of these methods as ways to tap into your heart’s wisdom to solve some of your daily challenges.

Resources:  Johnson, Lynn.  “Activate Your Frontal Lobes: One Minute to Increased Intelligence and Creativity.”  1999 – 2004.

Live, Grow and Relate: meaning and purpose in work and life

Posted on July 8, 2009

These blogs will offer three things: an inspirational quote that seeks to inspire you, the reader; second, a teaching or strategy which will intend to broaden and build a set of skills or resources that can positively serve you in your work life; and, thirdly a take away: a practical tip to help you see that there is more than one way to do it as you are learning to be and show up as your best self each day in your work and life.

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.

~George Moore

Common sense may tell us that when we are calm and experiencing positive emotions, we show up as more intelligent. However, haven’t you had a time when you looked back on your life and remembered something that you did when you were scared and angry? Then later, this action seemed really dumb? Certainly we can all recall a lot of these “What was I thinking?” incidents. So, how to cultivate these positive emotions to move toward being our creative and intelligent “best”  especially in the work place?

Psychologists now believe that there are three core positives feelings: compassion (a feeling of understanding of others coupled with a desire to help), curiosity, delight and joy.  Love, the magical combination of all three, is the greatest positive feeling.  And, any of these positive emotions stimulate positive thought: creativity, insight and peace – which leads to our best thinking.

How do we make these shifts into positive emotion? What do we look for when asking ourselves for the highest and best way to deal with a challenge? For example, we might ask: Is there another way to feel, do or respond to this situation?

The key here is that the answer to this question often comes from inside of ourselves.  There is an old Sufi (a Persian mystical sect) story about this. It seems that Nasrudin was seen madly riding his donkey from one side of town to the other, searching for something. Finally the people in the town stopped him and asked, “Mullah Nasrudin what are you looking for?”

“My donkey” was the frantic reply.

Take away: Like Nasrudin in this story, we often race around looking for answers outside of ourselves. Sometimes the answers may not come as we expect. Yet, when we listen to ourselves and, at the same time, shift into positive emotion; this is often the time when we have the most insight and creativity. Yes, we all have untapped wisdom within. Look for it there.


Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD Positivity, Crown Publishers, 2009

Lynn D. Johnson, PhD “Activate your frontal lobes: One Minute to Increased Intelligence and Creativity” 1999-2004

Chris Peterson, A Primer in Positive Psychology, Oxford Press, 2006

Martin Seligman, Flourish, Free Press, 2011