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How To Communicate With Difficult People at Work

Updated: May 20, 2019

How to Work with Difficult People by Executive Coach San Francisco  Dr. Nadine Greiner

We are all forced to interact with difficult people at work. They come in all shapes and sizes. There are the Chatty Cathys who gossip, talk frequently, and never listen. There are the Debbie Downers who constantly vent about their and others’ misfortunes and, in doing so, dampen the culture. There are the Procrastinating Petes who don't fulfill commitments and can’t be relied on. There are the Preening Peacocks who compete for power and the limelight. And there are the Teachers’ Pets who make all attempts to woo their superiors.

Difficult people swarm over the workplace. More often than not, we avoid communicating with them like the plague and the situation is never rectified. A study by Accenture found that 35% of employees voluntarily leave their jobs as a result of internal politics. Fortunately, the situation need not result in defeat. Difficult people can be reformed. The key is effective communication.

1. Embrace an open mind

When embarking on difficult conversations, it’s important to shift from our natural tendency to be reactive to being proactive. Don’t play the blame game. It’s most effective to maintain an open mind and make all efforts to understand the other person’s perspective and point of view. If the other party genuinely believes that you have a desire to understand and learn, he/she will be more likely to respect you and the conversation at hand.

Joel Garfinkle, executive leadership coach and author of “Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level” and “Difficult Conversations: Practical Tactics for Crucial Communication”, recommends starting from a place of curiosity. He explains, "Lean into the conversation with an open attitude and a genuine desire to learn. Start from a place of curiosity and respect — for both yourself and the other person. Genuine respect and vulnerability typically produce more of the same: mutual respect and shared vulnerability.”

2. Slow the pace and listen

It’s easy for pent-up emotions to flair and ignite into wrath and rage during difficult conversations. It can be very challenging to keep your calm. In order to keep your emotions in check and engage in a productive conversation, it’s often prudent to slow the pace of the conversation. Jean-Francois Manzoni, a professor of human resources and organizational development at INSEAD recommends slowing the cadence and allowing time for pauses before replying to the other person. This strategy “gives you a chance to find the right words” and, in turn, is likely to “defuse negative emotion”. Listening is key. Manzoni explains, “If you listen to what the other person is saying, you’re more likely to address the right issues and the conversation always ends up being better”. While it can be easier to think of a retort while the person is talking, you're better positioned when you polish your listening skills and patience.

How to Work with Difficult People by Executive Coach San Francisco Dr. Nadine Greiner

3. Make the conversation behavioral, not personal

Difficult conversations are rarely effective when they involve making judgments and assigning blame. In these situations, the other party is apt to become defensive and, in turn, closed minded. The most effective tactic is to address specific behaviors. In conversing with difficult people, executive coach Bill Gardner recommends structuring sentences like this: “When you do X, it causes me to think you are Y." For example, “When you dominate the conversation, it makes me feel under-appreciated and under-valued.” This type of interaction lowers defensive barriers and renders the other party more willing to resolve the issue.

Zig Ziglar once said, “Some people find fault like there’s a reward for it.” Indeed, it’s easy to identify flaws in others. In the workplace, it’s critical that we don’t shy away from confrontations with difficult people. An executive coach can be a powerful resource in terms of helping you develop the tools and mindset needed to engage in difficult conversations. Emotional intelligence, meditation, reflective, and other training will enable you to confront difficult people in productive ways. Theodore Zeldin famously remarked, “A conversation doesn’t just shuffle the deck of cards – it creates new ones”.


San Francisco Executive Coach Dr. Nadine Greiner

Nadine Greiner, Ph.D. provides Executive Coaching and Human Resources solutions. Her mission is to make the executive experience exceptionally enjoyable and effective. She believes that the world needs great leaders, and has dedicated her career to helping them.

As an organization psychologist and former corporate CEO, Dr. Nadine understands the pressures and demands executives face. She offers her clients the high expertise that only comes with three decades of consulting success, and a dual Ph.D. in Organization Development and Clinical Psychology. Dr. Nadine is an in-demand speaker, teaches in doctoral programs, and coaches other consultants. She is the author of two books: ‘The Art of Executive Coaching: Secrets to Unlock Leadership Performance’, and of ‘Stress-less Leadership: How to Lead in Business and in Life’.

Contact Information: Feel free to email Dr. Nadine San Francisco Executive Coaching at or by phone at (415) 861-8383.


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