Effective Communication for Dealing with Difficult People

Yesterday I facilitated a workshop on Effective Communication for Dealing with Difficult People. The  group consisted of about 70 administrative support and clerical staff from across a local school board, courageous dedicated front-liners who deal with parents, students, colleagues and all manner of people in general across high school, elementary school and adult education. We talked about triggers and hot buttons and how these get pushed by difficult people.We discussed how dealing with difficult people can be draining. Then we talked about listening and assertiveness as the first line of defense when dealing with someone who is rude, sarcastic or downright hostile.

Call it bullying. Call it intimidation. Many of us sometimes face someone's aggression toward us. We cannot control the way other people react. They own their feelings--good or bad, which in and of themselves are neither right nor wrong. But, it never gives someone the right to treat us badly and with disrespect.

When our personal boundaries are crossed, our bodies alert us in terms of the resulting strong feelings we feel. This is when we need to assert ourselves. In fact, it's how we take care of ourselves and maintain our self-respect. Respect of self begets respect from others.

So here are a few tips distilled from today's session that might help you:

First, just listen…
When someone feels strong emotion, they will NOT hear anything you have to say, so start by simply listening (See my previous blog post about Active Listening).

If the angry person makes you the target of their anger, you don’t have to take it. There are ways to respond professionally.

Let the person know that you will not help or deal with them so long as they are:
·       Shouting at you
·       Being rude or sarcastic
·       Being abusive, hostile or otherwise difficult

If they persist in their behaviour:
·       Hang up the phone, or put them on hold
·       Ask them to call (or come) back
·       Tell them you will not help them if they continue to show hostility

The Non-blaming Four-part Assertion Message or "I-message"

This is the message you calmly deliver when you feel your rights have been trampled on or when you want to say something positive:
When this happens ____________________ (state an observable action that has affected you)
               I feel  ________________________(state how this action makes you feel)
               Because  _____________________ (state why it makes you feel this way)
               I need  _______________________ (tell the other person what you need in terms of tangible

* This formula works for the delivery of both positive and constructive feedback.

When you yell at me, I cannot help you because I feel stressed. I need you to calm down so that we can sort out this problem together.

Human relations requires that we constantly negotiate our boundaries. This can drain our energy and time, especially when we feel hijacked by someone else's anger. By practicing these simple techniques, you'll find yourself refusing to engage with the difficult person. In the process, you'll preserve your self-respect and command the respect you deserve.

My next blog post will explore other assertiveness skills that complement the non-blaming I-message. Come back and look for it!


  1. Hi Kelly,
    Thank you for sharing this helpful post. I have dealt with my share of rude people. It's really hard to keep my compsure but it's feasible.
    Looking forward to your post on assertiveness.

  2. Thank you, Claudia! Yes, it's feasible so long as we see the signs of our buttons getting pushed and stop ourselves from taking the bait.

  3. With modified language this even works on 3 year olds... :)

  4. It certainly does, Jenn! And what a great way to practice these important skills.


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