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A Perspective On Difficult People

From Of Seeds and Sowers, NAICR’s distinguished newsletter that includes current programs, projects and tele-classes, as well as humor and inspiration. Visit the site to learn more about the work of Barbara Ashley Phillips and Kenneth Cloke.

Many are concerned from time to time about dealing with difficult people. Ever since my days in the San Francisco United States Attorney’s office (where word was that I seemed to run the “crazies” department in the Tax Section), I’ve been fascinated with difficult people – finding most often that the real difficult person is me. Here are some highlights of the program Mediating with Difficult People presented to the Seattle Area Federal Executive Board ADR Consortium.


It is never about you. Whatever is going on with the difficult person is only about them. When you attempt to manage a difficult person, you’ve moved into mere coping. This moves you off your center. You are trying to make something happen instead of creating the opening to allowing that or something far better to happen. Making something happen requires effort and puts you in a position you’ll need to defend. There is a quality of pushing the river. You don’t need to do that.

Be gentle with yourself. You cannot be whole in your dealings with others without gentleness – toward yourself as well as toward others. No one gets it right all the time. Difficult people are among the many opportunities life offers. The only difference between a stepping-stone and a stumbling block is how you use it. Being gentle with yourself is pre-requisite to clarity of perception and to real effectiveness.

What you resist, you become. This is the way life works. Resistance comes from inner hardness and inner hardness blocks your creativity, barricades your sense of humor and leads you down blind alleys. Inner resistance is entirely within your capacity to perpetuate or relinquish.

At times, there are circumstantial problems that seem to make people behave poorly – for example situations where a person is feeling deeply threatened. Sometimes people are so overwrought they have a hard time being “present.” Discourtesy is part of the everyday life of many. How can trust building have a chance in the face of such behavior?

Managing oneself is the key piece in the puzzle. In this work, there is no one, right answer. The point is to learn how to stop doing what you are doing that tends to keep an ugly pattern going.

How you are, inside, in the moment, is everything when the pressure is on.


1. Finding the Common Ground and Using It

(1) Seek each one’s input on what the purpose of coming is, privately in advance of the meeting, or during the meeting or with the whole group. An apparently destructive purpose is okay. It may be a proxy for another unstated or even unrecognized purpose. Whatever their purpose, if you find yourself on edge about it, stop. Let it in at face value. Don’t get mental about it. Let it be. Your being okay or neutral on the inside with whatever it is can allow threatening or disruptive agendas to melt away, because there is no longer need to fight for recognition of them.

(2) Elicit privately, where needed, ideas about how to accomplish what each one came to accomplish. Seeking advice is far better than giving it.

(3) Use this information about purpose and intent, where necessary, to maintain focus. If someone has told you their objective, you can ask them confidentially to decide whether present behavior is being helpful in advancing that objective. From what inner space within you this is done, determines whether it is perceived (consciously or unconsciously) as a manipulation or a statement of reality.

2. Building Rapport

(1) Offer Rapport to Every Single Person – Do not neglect anyone. Rapport is an internal state of connectedness between people that facilitates recognizing common ground, common interests, common humanity. In clean form, rapport allows everyone some slack. In dirty form – when it is done for a purpose – it often has the opposite effect.

(2) Manage Your Own Expectations – Do not make rapport (or anything else for that matter) an internal goal. You can have loosely held external goals, but the more you weigh yourself down with expectations, the worse things are likely to go. Even when people appear not to be in rapport, they may actually be so. And when they appear to be in rapport, they may not be so. Check in your heart to recognize and release your own internal agenda. By your agenda, you make things about you when they are not about you.

(3) Reframe Sparingly – use with caution. It is not necessarily desirable to reframe something unpleasant. Sometimes it is far more effective just being with a person’s view and even, in some cases, carrying it to its logical extreme, without judgment. Judgment delivers a hostile message subconsciously even if not consciously, and renders you untrustworthy to the other person.

3. Relating To the Difficult Person

(1) Go with their flow – using inquiry; balancing inquiry with response. They have been told “no,” “impossible,” and similar things for a long time. That’s where they would expect you to go. And it is where you do not need to go.

(2) Be responsive to them but do not push them – attending and acknowledging. Push creates resistance. If you want to increase resistance, push.

(3) Speak indirectly to them through comments and observations made to others in their hearing. Sometimes things cannot be said directly to someone but only to them through another. This can derail heavy opposition.

(4) Raise doubt – few are impervious to doubt. Questions raised lightly and empathically may be more readily taken inside where they may help a person to gain perspective. A purpose to change someone is lethal to the effectiveness of raising doubt.


Barbara Ashley Phillips

Barbara Phillips has 19 years of widely varied mediation experience, specializing in complex, technical and sensitive matters. A graduate of Yale Law School, Phillips served as an Assistant United States Attorney and practiced primarily federal civil trial law in Oregon and California prior to becoming a mediator. In Phillips' mediations,… MORE >

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