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  Management Feature

It Doesn't Have to Be Difficult

Posted 12/9/2010
By Patrick Donadio, MBA

A 4-step process helps deal with difficult situations.

No one ever looks forward to dealing with a difficult situation, whether it is with an employee, a customer or a co-worker. But inevitably, problems arise and at some time, it will be your turn to address them.

Whenever possible, try to identify what type of person you are dealing with, the rationale behind his or her actions and adjust your communication style to match the other person's. Keep in mind that the person you are communicating with may not be exactly like you. So take the time to find out as much as you can about them and the issue before you address the problem.

Also understand that you need to communicate differently with various types of people. For example, the quiet person might need some advance warning about your meeting and some prompting in order to share ideas. The complainer may need some assurance that his or her voice will be heard and that you will actually take some action in response.

All employees should receive some kind of training in communication skills, and it is helpful to have a "tool box" of techniques you can use to address difficult situations. Here is a four-step process and tips for each step that will help you the next time you have to communicate with a difficult person or in a difficult situation:

1. Prepare Yourself

Your first step when dealing with a difficult customer or co-worker is to get yourself mentally prepared:

    • Check your body posture and smile. If you are on the phone, smile with your voice.

    • If possible, grab a pencil and paper and take brief, but specific notes.

    • Get in the "adult" state of mind. According to Dr. Eric Burn, we behave in three modes of behavior, referred to as transactional analysis (TA): the child, parent and adult. When dealing with conflict, it's important to stay in the adult mode. Don't act like a parent and be judgmental or a child and be defensive or emotional. The best mode is the "adult" mode, where you focus on the facts and not the person or the behavior.

    • Accept any responsibility that may be yours and realize that it is OK to agree to disagree.

    • Don't take things personally. Although it may be difficult not to, remember it's not necessarily about you. You need to separate yourself from the issue. Ultimately, if tempers begin to flare, realize that you may need to take a break and get back together later on.

    • Remember the adage: Praise in public; criticize in private. If you're dealing with a sensitive issue or an emotionally charged person, try to speak with the person in private.

2. Understanding Goes a Long Way

Often people think they need a quick comeback when faced with a difficult situation, or they make assumptions about the problem at hand. Take the time to step back and get the other person talking.

    • First, seek to understand; then, seek to be understood. This is one of the principles from Dr. Stephen Covey's book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People."

    • Don't blurt out, "I'm sorry, I can't help you." Ask questions and listen. Even if you can't help him or her, asking questions and listening will help calm down the customer, build rapport and give you a better perspective. You can also ask the person, "What would you like me to do?" Not only could you help solve his or her problem, but you might also find that what he or she wants is less than you had imagined.

    • If one or both parties start to get upset, suggest resuming the conversation in 20 minutes. This will give everyone time to calm down and collect their thoughts.

    • Check for understanding: Let emotions run their course and then build a bridge to rational discussion. Don't forget to smile.

    • If you are talking to a customer, ask permission to use his or her name and then use it. This can help calm the customer and build rapport.

    • Also state or restate your purpose to them. For example, "My priority is to help you solve your problem." Then ask questions for clarification, to check for accuracy or to hear the information again. This tactic reinforces that you really mean what you say.

3. Preserve the Relationship

Once you understand the concern or issue, it's time to solve it and preserve the relationship.

    • Be sure you know what he or she wants. If you are still not sure, ask again.

    • Ask your customer or co-worker specific questions to find out exactly what he or she wants: "Why is this happening?" "What can we do about it?" Involve the other person in the solution process.

    • Communicate and explore alternatives. Never assume you can't help someone. By thinking about alternatives and offering suggestions about what you can do, you keep the conversation on a positive plane. Possible answers to the problem could be a refund, a credit or a discount on future services.

    • It can also be beneficial to speak in positive terms. Tell the person what you can do, not what you can't do, about their request or complaint. "What I can do is present this to my boss and see what he (or she) thinks."

    • Once you come to a resolution, propose a fair solution and get support. If it is a customer, it might sound something like this: "If I take it back and give you full credit, would that be OK with you?"

    • Finally, you must "sell" the solution by showing the other person how he or she will benefit from this resolution: "It's not that difficult to correct. In fact, if you complete the online form today, we will still be able to get you scheduled for an appointment."

4. Close the Interaction in a Positive Manner

After you have worked to iron out the problems with your customer or co-worker, it is important that you summarize and close the interaction in a positive manner.

    • Review the agreement you reached, and use terms of mutuality when reviewing the solution. For example, "Let's both be sure of what we agreed to do." Be explicit about the steps that you promised to take and the ones that the customer agreed to perform.

    • Thank the person for his or her time and indicate your willingness to help in the future.

    • After you finish your conversation, record the information and solutions/actions on your calendar or on a form. Note each step you agreed to take and exactly when you will do them. If possible, issue a written confirmation of the agreement. This gives you another opportunity to mend the relationship.

    • Where appropriate, check back with the person. If it is a customer, make a follow-up call to the customer to see if he or she is satisfied.

Remember, when dealing with a difficult person, you have choices. So slow the whole process down to give yourself some ability to think before you respond and follow-up. The four-step process gives you an approach that will make interaction more manageable.

In Summary ...

Remember this four-step process when dealing with difficult situations:

1. Prepare Yourself - Your first step when dealing with a difficult customer or co-worker is to get yourself mentally prepared.

2. Understanding Goes a Long Way - Successfully dealing with a difficult customer or co-worker isn't hard, if you just follow a few ground rules: Understand, be understood and check for understanding.

3. Preserve the Relationship - Once you understand your customer's problem, it's time to solve it and preserve the relationship.

4. Close the Interaction in a Positive Manner - After you have worked to iron out the problems with your customer or co-worker, it is important that you summarize and close the interaction in a positive manner.

Editor's note: This article is one of several management articles that are being contributed to AutoInc. this year by Automotive Management Institute (AMI) instructors. To learn more about AMI, its courses and instructors, visit

Patrick Donadio

Patrick Donadio, MBA, is a certified speaking professional and master certified coach. He specializes in business communications and leadership development. Donadio trains/coaches leaders and their organizations on how to increase profits, improve presentation/verbal communications, enhance their credibility, deepen relationships and boost performance - in less time. For more information, visit, call (614) 488-9164 or e-mail him at


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