The Difficult Person: 4 More Tools to Get Unstuck

Eric StutzmanConflict Resolution0 Comments

What do you do when someone seems to think you are the problem in a situation of conflict?

I received the following excellent question in response to my last blog, 6 Tips to Deal with a Difficult Person:

Dear Eric,
As I strive to integrate the position you outlined in your article (which I’ve been trying to do for some time), I am sometimes faced with someone who is very much invested in their position that I am such-and-such (stubborn, passive aggressive, clueless or whatever) and uses “you” language instead of the “I” language I’m trying to use. In such cases I find that my “I” language does not get me very far. Any tips for those trying times?  – Signed, Striving

Dear Striving,

I agree that it is very trying when someone sees us as a problem, especially when we are doing our best to be skillful and deal with conflict effectively.

Here are three things I try to do when “I” messages don’t seem to be enough, and four more tools to try when you are feeling stuck.

1. Remember you are using a tool

 A tool does the bidding of the person that holds it.  In order to use a tool well, you need to both check your intention in using the tool and then use the tool with skill.

An “I” message is a great tool for communicating about the impact of something on us or about our perspective.  It is designed to reduce blaming “you” statements, and instead invite someone to hear about our experience. Speaking in the first person, without blaming, can be very helpful because it reduces defensiveness and increases the chance of someone being able to listen to us. However, an “I” message needs to be seen as only one possible tool to use when working with interpersonal tension. Although it can be effective, it is limited in its range of uses.

2. Check to see if you are using the tool correctly

 Like any tool, an “I” message can be used with varying degrees of proficiency.  If you find yourself saying, “I feel that ___,” you are almost certainly going to be telling someone what you think, rather than what you feel. Instead of eliciting empathy, you will be eliciting an argument. This is especially true if you follow it with the word “you” as in, “I feel that you are wrong.”  Notice how this isn’t a feeling statement at all, but rather a statement of blame.  Instead you might say, “I feel misunderstood,” or “I feel frustrated because I’m not sure I’ve been understood.”

3. Try a different tool

 When we build something like a house, or when we initiate a new project at work, we use many different tools to accomplish our goals. Given that our relationships can be just as complicated, we need to do the same for resolving interpersonal tension. Here are four of my favourite tools:

Tool 1:  Listen with empathy

Instead of starting with an “I” message, first focus on understanding the other with empathy.  Communicate what you hear by paraphrasing the emotional content of their message.  It is the emotional content that truly shows that you understand the other person.  Here’s a handle to get you started: “You feel ____ because ____.”  This sends a message that you want to understand them and that you are willing to listen.  And very importantly, this also slows down your mental arguing pattern, so that you really focus on what they are saying.

Tool 2: Summarize

Summarizing serves a similar purpose to paraphrasing.  However, it involves reflecting back on the entire conversation.  It’s a great way to take a break from intensity, review, and check understanding.  Focus on what they have said and what you have said already.  I often start by asking, “Can I summarize our conversation so far so that I can make sure I’m getting everything?”

Notice that when people feel listened to, they quickly de-escalate.  You don’t have to agree when you summarize, but you do have to show that you truly understand their position.

Tool 3: Take a deep breath

Take time to notice your own emotions.  A deep breath will help you focus and become calmer.  This will help you think, and reduce the chance you are going to say something that will make things worse.

As you calm yourself, you will also help them become calmer. In the same way that it’s easy to take on their agitation, it is also easy for you to influence their emotional state by regulating yours.

Tool 4: Thank them

Thank them for telling you what they think.  Remember the last time someone thanked you for doing something?  It is very validating, especially when one feels strongly about something.  It communicates that what you have said is important and I have listened.  It’s also a subtle way to say, “I’m with you, not against you.”


In sum, I believe we must remember that tools are simply tools.  Any tool has a limited range of uses, and can be used well or misused.  If your intention is to listen deeply, communicate without blame, and work with the other person, they will notice.  Once you have your intention right, remember these ideas:

  1. Remove the word “that” from I messages.
  2. Use paraphrasing that focuses on emotion: “You feel ____ because ____.”
  3. Summarize: “I want to summarize our conversation to this point…”.
  4. Take a deep breath and regulate your own emotions.
  5. Thank them.

Thank you for the question, Striving.  Keep at it!

All the best,

Eric Stutzman, Managing Director
ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance and author of the Dealing with Difficult People resource manual and workshop.

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