Episode #29: How to Communicate with Difficult People at Work

This episode is part of the Career Advancement Series that has been curated to help you become an exceptional communicator.

Throughout this series I have shared a known fact that people will judge you by how you communicate; therefore, your ability to communicate effectively can make or break your career. 

A statistic from a survey of U.S. businesses states that the inability to communicate and poor communication skills are the top reasons for employees not succeeding on the job. With that said, learning the skills to become an exceptional communicator is essential for your career advancement and long-term success. 

Have you ever been faced with these communication challenges? 

  • Do you ever experience communication breakdowns with your team?
  • Do you ever feel angry because someone put you down or challenged you in front of others? 
  • Do you ever get the feeling that others aren’t listening to you?
  • Do you ever fumble for the right words when asked a question unexpectedly in a meeting?
  • Do you ever dread delivering bad news to employees, supervisors, or clients? 
  • Do you ever envy other professionals who express their ideas with such confidence and power? 

If any of these communication challenges sound all too familiar, then keep listening!

When you master essential communication skills and become an exceptional communicator, you will boost both your personal and professional communication proficiency. 

I invite you to consider aspects of your communication where you feel the most frustrated right now. Write it down to help you focus on improving it, then send it to me in an email at support@teenaevert.com and if I don’t address it in this series, I will be able to respond to you directly.

Changing the way in which you communicate can be an enormous task because it requires continued practice and the willingness and ability to make adjustments along the way. You’ll need support and perhaps a coach to help you stay committed to reaching this goal.

Learning to become an exceptional communicator is both a skill set and a mindset that you can learn and continue to improve throughout your life. It gets easier the more you practice and the stronger and more proficient you will become. 

It’s like training for an event where there are specific skills that you develop and practice on a regular basis to prepare for the event. If you stop practicing and training you may lose some of your power and confidence. The good news is, you can always start to practice your skills again and see improvement almost immediately. Don’t ever give up, keep practicing, get support and be kind to yourself. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being effective. 

Today’s episode “How to Communicate with Difficult People at Work” … is a popular topic!

You’ll learn:

  • Why communication breakdowns occur
  • How to effectively communicate in conflict
  • Ways to diffuse tense situations
  • Surefire Ways to avoid making enemies
  • 4 steps to build trust, cooperation, and support

Why Do Communication Breakdowns Occur?

Let’s begin to explore this question…

Trust is the foundation for open, candid, caring conversations. When trust dissolves so does our ability to treat one another with empathy and understanding.

Consider the metaphor of a door that guards the pathway to our inner self. When we feel trust, we readily open that door, leading to an exchange of thoughts, feelings, and dreams with someone else. On the other hand, when we distrust someone, thinking that he/she is somehow a threat, we quickly slam that door shut in an effort to defend ourselves from being hurt or rejected. 

The quality of the conversation drives the nature of the impact. If the impact feels good we’ll open up to more interactions and grow. If the impact feels bad we’ll close down and move into protective mode. 

There are patterns about human interactions that we all share and some conversations make us healthy or unhealthy. To be healthy, human beings need to connect, belong, and be strong. We must learn to have strong points of view, have a voice, and partner with others. To sustain a feeling of safety, we’ve evolved instincts to protect ourselves or reject those who harm us. 

If we manage our underlying feelings of rejection and protection, and we harness our ability to reach out to others – even when we’re feeling rejected – we gain mastery over our instincts. 

This is essential to be able to navigate tough situations and effectively deal with difficult people. When we’re having a good conversation, even if it’s a difficult one, we feel good. We feel connected to the other person in a deep way and we feel we can trust him/her. In good conversations we know where we stand with others – we feel safe. 

Bad conversations trigger our distrust network and good conversations trigger our trust network. Each influences what we say, how we say it, and why we say it.

Communication breakdowns occur when situations tap into our fears: fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, and fear of losing control. Yes, a situation that can be stressful is having to have that difficult conversation. 

Maybe you’re a manager who needs to address inappropriate behavior from an employee, or maybe you need to deliver bad news to a superior. These are just two examples of tough communication situations – learning how to be an effective communicator, even under the most stressful conditions, will qualify you as an exceptional communicator! 

Inevitably, we’re all going to face a situation where we have to initiate a difficult conversation. Whether we’re delivering bad news, offering feedback regarding a sensitive issue, or having to mediate an explosive situation, we know we need to face the situation head-on. Nobody likes to find themselves in an uncomfortable or confrontational situation. 

Think about a time when you were on the receiving end of a difficult conversation. 

  • What if anything, made the experience a little easier?
  • What made it worse? Have you ever had to be the bearer of bad news or especially critical feedback?
  • How did you handle it? 

I want to share some strategies that you can practice by applying them to various situations. Practice and preparation will boost your confidence and effectiveness the next time you’re faced with a tough communication situation. 

How to Effectively Communicate in Conflict

Let’s explore 10 Strategies you can apply to effectively communicate potential high-conflict situations: 

  1. Find the best time and place with maximum privacy and minimal distractions.
  2. Determine when the other person is likely to be most open to conversation.
  3. Emphasize the positive and set expectations for a constructive discussion. 
  4. Demonstrate that you understand the other point of view by objectively paraphrasing, remaining calm, and acknowledging his or her feelings. 
  5. Try to focus on behavior and not personal characteristics or opinions. 
  6. Don’t beat around the bush, but transitional “bridging phrases” can help get the conversation started. For example, try “I’m glad we found this chance to talk,” or “I’m sure you’re curious about why I wanted to meet.”
  7. Even though the conversation may elicit strong emotions, try not to get pulled in. Remain as calm and objective as possible, and don’t take comments personally. 
  8. Remember to pay attention to body language, since the majority of communication happens through that channel – remember 58%. 
  9. Tackle the issue head-on, and encourage the other person to participate so that person doesn’t feel like he or she has been called to the principal’s office. Be sure to include specific, genuine praise and end the conversation focused on the future, with action steps in place. The tone at the end should be positive and hopeful. 
  10. Employ all your active listening skills and counteract defensiveness with empathy and questions that help you discover the cause of the emotional reaction.

Ways to Diffuse Tense Situations

People often ask me how to best deal with behaviors like backstabbing, ridicule, and aggressive tactics, such as the challenge of being put down in front of others

The best way to learn how to deal with these behaviors is to practice using “I” statements to manage these difficult situations. Use statements that begin with “I” are to take ownership of your part in the situation. 

“I” statements are essential in these tough situations because they will: 

  • Reduce defensiveness
  • Enable the listener to focus on the message; it’s harder to argue with facts than feelings
  • Keep the exchange devoid of assumptions or judgments

Here’s How it works: 

I feel…When…Because

When you state “I feel” you’re sharing a feeling, not a thinking descriptor that starts with, “I think” – start with “I feel” or “I felt”.  For example, “I felt embarrassed when my competency was challenged at the meeting this morning.”

When you state “When” you want to state facts, issues, and behaviors and avoid personalities and labels. For example, “I felt embarrassed when my competency was challenged at the meeting when I shared my estimated timeline of the project.”

And “Because”, describes the effect or the impact. For example, “I get thrown off when I feel my competency is being challenged because I don’t want people to be concerned about the outcome of the project.”

Using “I” statements is most likely a technique you have used before  – however, have you practiced it? By practicing this technique you’ll learn to clearly communicate thoughts and feelings (and perceptions) without hurting the other person. 

This technique greatly reduces defensiveness, which is a core part of many conflicts in the workplace. 

Here’s one more example…Have you ever had this thought, about a coworker 

“Wow you did a poor job on the project” yet you don’t want to SAY THAT, what you want to verbally communicate is, “I’m not satisfied with the work that you’ve done on the project because I know that you can do better.”

Practice, practice, practice and you’ll see your conflicts dissipate faster. Another way to avoid allowing negative communication to develop into even more drama is to separate your thoughts from your feelings. This technique will help you quickly defuse explosive or tense situations.

When you’re dealing with a volatile communication situation and another person is directing their anger at you – you want to first listen to their concerns and validate them. No matter how easygoing we think we are, chances are we’re going to find ourselves in a heated discussion that only seems to be escalating. Use these strategies to defuse almost any explosive communication situation. 

Become keenly aware and observant of your own body language and consider these 5 tips.

  1. Relax your face, neck, and arm muscles, and open your stance, with your arms casually at your sides. Try to keep a neutral facial expression and initiate eye contact. 
  2. Put one foot forward and one foot back, shifting your weight slightly to the back foot, which makes your stance less intimidating and also prepares you to take a few steps back if you feel you need to. 
  3. As you look at the person, work hard not to roll your eyes, mumble under your breath, tighten your mouth or in any other way give him or her nonverbal fuel for the fire. Instead, nod appropriately to demonstrate that you’re listening. 
  4. As the person begins to calm down (trust that they will -be patient here) try walking away from your location in hopes that he or she will follow you and the whole situation can be moved to a new location, and in the process, a more productive conversation may ensue. 
  5. Be aware at all times of who is around, where your escape routes are, where your cell phone is and who you might call for help in case things get worse. 

A few other tips for successfully defusing explosive or tense situations: 

  • Demonstrate active listening, because often those who initiate these explosive situations feel that no one has been listening, which is how it got to this point. 
  • Validate the emotions the person is feeling even if you think they’re out of place.
  • Don’t engage in disagreement or deep discussion. Once the situation calms down, schedule another time (soon) to start the conversation again on a more constructive note. 
  • Bring in a neutral third party if appropriate, but be careful that the other person doesn’t perceive that you’re ganging upon him or her. 

Knowing how to defuse an explosive situation can mean the difference literally between life and death. 

Surefire Ways to AVOID Making Enemies

Making enemies at work is never effective. Instead, foster teamwork and collaboration. 

I’ll share 3 ways you make enemies AND several surefire ways to AVOID them:

  1. Always being right or making others look wrong – why? Because this will humiliate others and no one likes to be humiliated. Say, “I may be wrong, let’s look at this together…” or “Do you have a different approach?”
  2. Tell people they shouldn’t feel they do. No one has the right to do this, because whatever a person feels – they are entitled to that emotion.
  3. Ridicule and abuse should be avoided at all costs. People won’t work well for you if they are mistreated. Additionally, they will have the right to seek legal aid if abused. just don’t do it. This is a form of mental and emotional violence that has no place in the workplace. When you’re frustrated with a co-worker, discuss the behavior that’s bothering you using “I” statements and discuss a mutual solution.

4 Steps to Build Trust

Cooperation and support from your co-workers, employees, and your boss.

  1. Be friendly and open with others in the workplace, yet be discerning about the personal information that you disclose. You don’t want to tell your whole life story if this information is not relevant to your work culture, role or position. 
  2. Be yourself! If you try to show off all your good qualities and overdo it, people are going to know that you’re trying too hard. The confident and comfortable you are in your own skin the more you will demonstrate your good qualities through your actions. 
  3. Be transparent and talk about your goals and challenges. People like to be helpful and will try to provide you with direction and encouragement. 
  4. Make new friends. Get to know people and don’t be afraid to let your guard down a little. 

These steps will help you increase the level of trust, cooperation, and support in the workplace. 

Stay tuned for the next episode in the Career Advancement Series where you will learn: “How to Be a Professional and Powerful Communicator.”

In this episode we’ll explore: 

  • The antidote to fear of success or failure
  • Strategies to boost your confidence, self-esteem and strengthen your relationships with others
  • How to get the credit you deserve

If you would like to explore any of the career advancement topics further and receive additional support and coaching, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me by sending an email to support@teenaevert.com