It doesn’t happen all that often, but sometimes you need to deal with someone who is really aggressive, or not listening to you. It takes some skill to avoid the situation escalating into something that will do you or your business no good at all. Here I talk about a few scenario’s from a disgruntled customer, right through to potentially serious stand offs. And all aimed at dealing with the feelings and emotions that prevent an agreement being reached, rather than the specific negotiation skills that might be required.

Part of the issue you may face is, traditional ‘handling’ methods can just make things worse. If the people you are dealing with perceive you to be handling them, rather than dealing with what they perceive to be the problem, then you sometime make matters worse.

So here are some tips I’ve found useful over the years to try to disarm your protagonist, or at least move the conversation forward to some sort of resolution.

Go to the balcony 


Wiliam Ury (author of ‘Getting to Yes negotiation agreement without giving in’) talks about going to the balcony when dealing with difficult people. His premise is in normal negotiations, and he has been part of many, there are actually three parties. ‘You’, ‘me’ (the traditional main protagonists) and ‘us’ – as in everyone else, the people ‘watching’ or observing, or those capable of some sort of police action, or even punitive action if it came to it. The example Wiliam gives in his fabulous TED talk on the matter, is during a negotiation between Russia and Chechnya that he handled. He explains that the ‘pressure’ of the outside watching world provided a calming influence on the talks.

‘Going to the balcony’ is a similar idea. In so much as it advocates you trying to ‘rise’ above the conversation you are having, and see it the way someone else might, if that someone were watching it from a nearby balcony for instance. This mental trick gives you a tremendous insight into how the ‘outside’ world would view the conversation you are involved in that is proving so difficult.

Observing what the dispassionate witness might see really can ‘cool the jets’ and allow you to get some desperately needed perspective on the situation, and hopefully, to regain control and bring everyone back down to earth.

Don’t take it personally 

Mahatma Gandhi

I have loved a quotation by Mahatma Gandhi for as long as I can remember ‘Nobody can hurt me without my permission.’ It has been a powerful token for me as I have navigated my life, much less my professional career. Of course, it has not proven infallible, there are occasions when I have given people permission to hurt me, but it is important to understand that this has only occurred because you did give them the permission they needed.

For me, it’s usually those closest that have been able to dispense the most hurt, though it wasn’t always like that. An askance look, or an unkind word would have me running for cover when I was an adolescent particularly. But these days, you have to be pretty pointed to get through this protective mantra that I’ve adopted. And the same idea works when you are dealing with difficult people.

They can’t hurt you, there is nothing they say that can get through to you. There is no reason why you should allow them to hurt you. This is a bit more practical, and perhaps you should remind yourself of it now and again, but if you are representing an organisation for instance, there is very little the complainant can aim directly at you anyway, so even while you deal with it, make sure the poison and vitriol don’t get through your personal armour to do you any damage.

Don’t make any fast moves!

Remember, we are talking about difficult people here, not just every day standard complaints. If someone is getting irate, be very careful with your body language. In times of heightened emotion, it is extremely easy to have even the most basic physical movement misinterpreted. Remember, at least 75% of communication is non verbal, so the stakes are high.

Don’t approach, or get to close, stand your ground, but don’t appear to be ‘attacking’ or trying to gain advantage. Don’t point the finger. Literally! This is a very aggressive action at the best of times, much less when in conversation with someone who is irate. Have your palms face up to demonstrate lack of weapon (really) or at least intent, if you have to move your hands.

Keep your voice even. We want to demonstrate empathy for the situation, not escalate it. Don’t talk over the other person, or ‘shout them down’.

Don’t apologise

Or at least be careful what you are apologising for. Certainly be sorry about the situation and the fact it is so clearly distressing, but be careful of admitting responsibility for what has ‘gone wrong’. This might be from the corporate perspective, and have implications for the future developments of the situation you are trying to handle. But also, you must be cautious, inadvertently being identified as the reason for the problem can prompt an attack. And if it’s a particularly difficult situation, that can result in actual physical attack.

If all else fails, run! 

The Police are prepared for every eventuality

And seriously, if, despite all your efforts, the situation isn’t salvageable, or you feel is escalating, and getting out of control, with the potential for violence or some other harm to occur, then there is only one thing for it. Adjourn the meeting. Get out there. Rethink the approach. Depending on exactly how inflamed things are getting consider calling in the professionals. The Police are fully trained to deal with these kinds of environments, and under no circumstances should you stay longer then you feel safe. Get out and call the Police.

If you are in a particularly difficult situation, where tempers are high, maybe in a public place, like a reception area, and you are potentially at risk, back away to give yourself and the person you are talking to some space. Move slowly, and taking the advice above, don’t make any sudden moves. As soon as you are a safer distance, then you can move away more quickly. Again, if there is the threat in the air, get the Police involved and get yourself and everyone else out of harms way.

All this can sound dramatic, and clearly the best advice is to do everything to prevent it getting to such an escalated state in the first place, maybe by using one of the other ideas discussed here. But be very careful in highly volatile situations, head them off before they ignite, or even better, adjourn before things gets scary.

Anyone else got any tips? Leave a comment below, or on the Facebook page, it would be good to share ideas and information on this topic, you never know when it might come in handy!

  1. steve finch
    steve finch says:

    its always easy and good to use a mirror approach and look at it through their eyes as well, see what and how you would like to be dealt and handled and what the outcome should be

  2. Jean fisher
    Jean fisher says:

    Really good points here. In my experience it is important to get to the route of why the person is behaving in a difficult way.. What is bothering them?once you establish that you can work on what are the options to change the behaviour and agree a way forward.

  3. Lize Rudolph Stroebel
    Lize Rudolph Stroebel says:

    This helps a lot. I realised the past two weeks, why my big spender client can not make up his mind about 6 radio copies we have written(3 months on his desk) and he never gets time to speak to me or answer me. His company is a family company, and his Dad, the founder who is still a strong headed CEO, blows down his son’s neck about spending to much money on marketing. Well, I send hom last week an account for all the copies, and suddenly I got the go ahead to record it all, and he “leaves it in my capable hands”. Wow! He really tested me a lot. Thus, his Dad and the other partners always fight the marketing spent, but without that they would not have done so well, actually very well. I can breath now, “pfhew!!” and we also got the go ahead to go an book the new ads on different radio stations. He avoid me, because he did not have an answer form his Dad and partners, and he is completely overworked. His Dad is alos overworked. The ecnomic situation isn South Africaa has an effect on advertising spending. But, thanks for your article and clips.

  4. Mike Bersin
    Mike Bersin says:

    Thanks Tony. My Dad once gave me very valuable advice; when you’re faced with an angry person, wait until they’ve run out of steam and then say; “I can see you’re upset / angry about this and I want to help. What would you like me to do?” Expecting an argument it first take the wind out of their sales, and invites them to consider what they actually want you to do about the situation. (You haven’t agreed to do it, but you have expressed a desire to help). 9 x / 10 you can agree to whatever they come up with. If you can’t do what they want you can say “I can’t do that, but I can do this (whatever your alternative is). It’s also extremely funny to watch when the other party is expecting a fight and suddenly they have to start thinking instead – THEY have to come up with a solution!

  5. Paul
    Paul says:

    Another fantastic post! This made me think of two things.
    1. In my previous life as a manager in call centre environments, when dealing with aggrieved customers, Id never apologise for anything until I knew if it was necessary, but instead used phrases like “I am very sorry you feel that way” …. then if I knew an apology on behalf of the company was warranted, sure Id eat the humble pie!
    2. In an even more previous life to that, I worked as an assistant on a cruise ship. The ship had its own crew, our passangers were school children who had theri teachers and parents with them, and all excursions were run by people we hired in each location, so I was just a smiling face of the company that arranged it all. And first point of call/negotiator with any disputes between the aforementioned parties. The one bit of advice that stuck with me from my training was from our Director – “They only see what they see”. Keep that in mind and its so much easier to be objective and keep your own cool – similar to Mikes point.

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