Managing Difficult People

Business Relationship Management

Baxter Thompson Ltd, Jon Baxter

This post is an aide-memoire for Business Relationship Managers to help identify the key styles of engagement with Business stakeholders . It is last in a series of posts on how to influence others.

In our last post we explored the various styles of engagement used in negotiations and sales interactions, and how we can recognize and utilize those to our advantage. Let's now move on to a topic that we will all inevitably encounter: managing challenging people. The key is identifying the conflict and it's origin to make an educated decision as to how to solve the issue together.

Is there a genuine reason why people are being challenging? A real objection to what you are presenting or is it an excuse? Is it a simple lack of understanding or a different perspective? May be the way you talk and act gets their back up? Perhaps they see you as challenging!

Before embarking further, try to see things from their perspective. Listening to their message, reframing it and watching body language are key to understanding.

Being Assertive

Managing challenging people is maintaining an assertive presence and not being apologetic. It is not being overly aggressive. It is recognising your rights and goals along with those of other people. When engaging with a challenging person:

  • Practice in front of the mirror
  • Be positive and confident
  • Use direct and clear language e.g. I feel, I want
  • Make sure your tone of voice is steady and sincere
  • Maintain an interested face and retain eye contact
  • Stand tall with an open body posture
  • State your expectations
  • Listen empathetically 

Aggressive and Demanding People

From a business partner context we have worked with departments who have had a reputation for saying "No". We are not justifying that behaviour, rather if we have sought genuinely to find alternatives to an issue, rational debate has been exhausted where we find ourselves dealing with verbally aggressive people then a formula for saying “No” involves the following steps :

  • Say “No” (firm but sincere)
  • Explanation
  • Alternative 
  • Empathy (acknowledge what they have said)
  • Broken record (stay on track  - repeat your statement)
  • Influence and persuade (be aware of any differences in style and adapt yours accordingly)

Undermining Behaviour

Despite your best collaborative efforts, people who work for their own best interests can:

  • Spread false rumours
  • Compete instead of collaborate
  • Block requests or horde information

An example is typically focusing on a person’s bad performance, rather than focusing on a specific problem and trying to describe alternative solutions. Typically this arises when roles are not clearly defined, or there is a significant degree of change and uncertainty that poses a threat to existing ways of working.  

The objective you are trying to achieve is to neutralize the impact of their behaviour.

  • Get close to them, understand their drivers and goals.
  • Treat them as adults.
  • Be very careful with what you say to them as it could get twisted and replayed out of earshot.
  • Call out their behaviour and identify the impact it has on team morale and collaboration.
  • Be clear about your expectations. 
  • Identify ways of working together that can help meet their goals, or if not the broader benefits.
  • Identify the outcomes if the behaviour continues.
  • Stay close.

Recommended reading: “Influencing Pocket book” by Richard Storey, “The Leaders Guide to Influence” by Mike Brent and Fiona Elsa Dent, “Straight Talk for Success” by Bud Bilanich


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