Break Through to “Difficult People”

May 9, 2013

difficult people

Dealing with people can be hard if they are angry, difficult, or upset. How do you reach someone when they are no longer listening? Here are 5 ways to break through to difficult people:

  1. “Do You Really Believe That?” When a person launches into an out-of-control rant about an awful problem or unbearable situation, how it’s the end of the world, etc., etc., simply ask: “Do you really believe that?” The trick is to ask this question in a very calm and straightforward way. Your intent is not to antagonize or degrade, but rather to make the rant-er stop and realize that he or she is really making a mountain out of a molehill. Once in a rare while, you may be shocked when someone responds to this question with a firm “yes.” If that happens, you should really listen to what that person has to say.
  2. The Power of Hmmm… When you encounter a person who’s outraged and blames you, take a deep breath and say “hmmm…” Unlike “calm down,” and similar phrases that make an angry person angrier, “hmmm…” can rapidly turn a potential brawl into a cooperative dialogue. A simple “hmmm…” speaks volumes, telling people that what they’re saying is worth listening to and worthy of some sort of action. However, “hmmm…” commits you to nothing. The sole purpose of “hmmm…” is to ease tension to the point where you can have a conversation, identify the actual problem, and come up with a realistic solution. If you’re dealing with a client or customer meltdown, use “hmmm…” as your first line of defense.
  3. The Stipulation Game. A stipulation is what lawyers make when they agree upfront on a problematic fact, like the defendant’s fingerprints being on the murder weapon. It’s a smart technique because when people already know (or will quickly find out) your problem, your best move is to get it out of the way. When you stipulate to a potential problem, whether it’s lack of experience or a personal flaw, do it with confidence. The more unselfconscious and relaxed you are, the easier it will be for everyone to focus on your message. Stipulation takes courage, but the payoff is big. You’ll turn defects into assets and empower people to view you as a person rather than a problem. You might even find that the problem that’s been holding you back is a key to moving you forward.
  4. The Impossibility Question. Yes, your idea is daring and ambitious, but you know it’s possible. The problem is talking other people into seeing it your way—getting your coworkers, your clients, your employees, your boss, your investors, or your family to go from “we can’t do it” to “maybe we can do it” to “let’s do it!” To give your vision a powerful shove towards reality, try asking doubters two questions: “What’s something that would be impossible?” and “What would make it possible?” These questions move a person from a defensive, closed position or a selfish, excuse-making stance into an open, thinking attitude. When you invite people to tell you what they think is impossible, they’ll lower their guard to consider what’s possible. Then, they’ll begin to collaborate in thinking strategically.
  5. The Power Thank You. There’s nothing wrong with simply saying “Thanks.” But if you stop there, your communication is merely transactional (you did something nice for me, so I’ll say something polite to you). When you offer a Power Thank You, your words will touch the other person and strengthen the relationship between you. A Power Thank You has three parts. 1: Thank the person for something specific that he or she did for you (or refrained from doing that would have hurt you). 2: Acknowledge the effort it took for the person to help you. 3: Tell the person the difference that his or her act personally made to you. Offer your Power Thank You in a group meeting, if you can. It will show everyone involved that you can be trusted to give credit where it’s due—something that can win you important allies in a corporate world where people too often get burned by disloyalty.

Adapted from JUST LISTEN: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Everyone by Mark Goulston (AMACOM).

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About The Author

Mark Goulston is a psychiatrist, business consultant, executive coach, and former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. Trained as a clinical psychiatrist, he helps people increase their ability to get through to anyone. He presents many of these skills in his book, JUST LISTEN: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (AMACOM 2009). Goulston is a member of the International Leadership Association. He has provided training, executive coaching, and consultation to many companies and organizations, including GE, IBM, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Xerox, Deutsche Bank, Hyatt, Accenture, ADP, State Farm Insurance, Astra Zenica, Bristol Myers Squibb, Kaiser Permanente, Kodak, Federal Express, FBI, Los Angeles District Attorney, White & Case, Seyfarth Shaw, UCLA, USC, and Pepperdine University.


  1. avatar

    This was terrible. Not funny and random as heck.

  2. avatar

    This is some very helpful advice that I will definitely take into consideration for the future. My favorite point was the power of thank you. In my opinion a simple “thanks” in today’s common dialogue has lost some of its meaning and has become an almost automatic immediate response to the end of a conversation. If you follow the tips outlined to really turn a simple thanks into a powerful thank you I believe it will really make a difference to the people you are thanking.

  3. avatar

    Excellent advice – really. I would add that when dealing with individuals who may be suffering from a spectrum of emotional/mental disorders, who are professionals and in power over another the following works.

    1) Always acquiesce to any action from a person who is suffering from mental illness – don’t obstruct them. If what he or she has accomplished is illegal, the authorities can handle it later (bearing in mind it is not a murder or something like that).

    2) If a person is going into a manic attack – and attacking you personally, verbally, go into a crazy funny mode – make multiple and constant funny faces for as long as you can handle it, speak gibberish and do it with fun – don’t say any thing that is hostile or comprehensible. This action will break a psychotic’s hold in going “psycho” unless they are in a true psychosis. It takes a great deal of strength to keep up the gibberish and the funny faces for as long as a half hour but it will work – the emotionally disturbed person will let go and laugh.

  4. avatar


    You have added some interesting elements to the communicatoin process that explain how active listening can move a process forward. I was particularly interested in the stipulation game and the impossibility question. I learned some good techniques in this blog.



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