Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People (2013) provides practical tactics for navigating tough conversations at work. Along with over 325 phrases, it includes dozens of sample conversations that show the phrases in action.
Bite-sized truths and tactics for managing conflict with difficult coworkers and bosses.
Brownnosers, credit-stealers, meeting-monopolizers, gossips, bullies – the workplace can be full of difficult people. And whether it’s your coworkers, bosses, or even yourself on occasion, these difficult people are bound to create some kind of conflict in your life.
In this summary to Renée Evenson’s Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People, we’ll dive into tried-and-true tactics for dealing with a variety of challenging situations. Using a simple, five-step process and some powerful phrases, you’ll learn to expertly navigate through conflict – keeping your work relationships intact and showcasing your communication skills in the process.
Some basic rules
Tense relationships at work typically don’t just solve themselves.
Chances are, if you’re wondering whether Phil three cubicles down has been giving you the cold shoulder, he probably has. And if you have some hard feelings toward Linda in quality control, she’s probably aware of it on some level. These things don’t usually go undetected.
The good news is, there are a few simple rules you can follow to smooth the way for a productive conversation – even if you’re not great with conflict.
Rule one? Never say never. That is, don’t start conversations with “always” or “never.” Take a second to think about the last time you messed up. Maybe someone came to you with an always or never statement like, “You never put your coffee mug in the dishwasher.”
Did that statement make you feel like putting your coffee mug in the dishwasher? Or did it instead make you feel like defending yourself ? After all, you do put your coffee mug in the dishwasher most of the time!
A better alternative would be something like, “Hey, I ended up doing dishes today, and it cut into my lunch hour. Would you mind putting your mug in the dishwasher next time?”
And this leads us to the second rule: don’t start conversations with “you.” In the coffee mug example, saying “You never put your coffee mug in the dishwasher” sounds like an accusation – so it puts you on the defensive. On the other hand, offering an “I” statement gives you a chance to see how your actions affected someone else.
In the next section, we’ll explore some common phrases you can incorporate into your conflict conversations.
The powerful phrases
The right words can make all the difference in resolving or fending off conflict. You’ll soon learn the five steps to working through conflict with an annoying boss, workplace bullies, and even yourself when you’re the one in the wrong.
But first, here are some phrases you’ll need for each of those steps.
Your “I” phrase has ideally opened up the conversation and made it possible for the offending coworker to hear your issue and respond calmly. So once they’ve had a chance to share their side of the story, you’ll need a phrase of understanding – something like, “I realize that you didn’t do it on purpose” or “I understand that you didn’t mean it to sound that way.”
A phrase of understanding shows Linda that you’re willing to believe the reason she gives – which probably isn’t that she’s trying to outshine you in the conference room.
Phrases of apology are another useful tool. They don’t have to mean that you’re in the wrong. Instead, they’re simply there to create an opening in a situation – to acknowledge that things haven’t gone ideally up to this point, and that you’d like to share the responsibility. These could include something like, “I’m sorry if I seem overly sensitive” or “I’m sorry if I misunderstood your intent.”
Next up are phrases of compromise. These statements help you transition into the problem-solving part of the conversation. They’re designed to help you share ownership of the solution with your coworker. Saying “Can we talk about what happened?” or “Let’s talk this over and find a suitable compromise” shows you have an open mind.
Once you’ve come to a shared solution, you can wrap up with a phrase of resolution – “I’m happy we could resolve this” or “I’m thrilled we were able to come to an agreement.”
And finally, follow up with a phrase of reconciliation. Here’s one example: “I value our working relationship. Going forward, I think we’ll be able to work through any problem.” You could also say, “I understand you better now, and I hope you feel the same about me.”
Feel free to use these phrases as they are – or come up with your own variations that serve the same purpose and intent.
The power of body language
Your conflict-management toolbox is almost full, but there’s one thing left to discuss before tying it all together in the five-step process – and that’s what you don’t say.
Nonverbal communication can completely change the meaning of your words. The wrong tone, facial expression, or posture can put a different slant on what you’re trying to say. So it helps to keep a few key things – many of them common knowledge – in mind.
For starters, don’t fold your arms over your chest. Try to have a good, casual posture with your arms at your sides or hands lightly clasped in front of you. Hold your head up. Make eye contact, but bounce away once in a while so you don’t come off as too intense. Don’t fidget; instead, use purposeful gestures.
Make sure your facial expression is relaxed. If your resting face tends to be a little stern, then turn up the corners of your mouth like you’re preparing to smile. In terms of your tone of voice, try to keep it calm and steady – and don’t talk too fast.
Other people’s behaviors can teach you a lot about how you’re being perceived. So during your conversation, pay attention to the person you’re speaking with. Notice how they respond, and tailor your behavior to the situation. If your coworker has slumped shoulders, they may not be feeling confident. Take that into account, and do what you can to help them feel comfortable.
If you notice your coworker is backing away from you, give them some space – literally. If you notice your coworker getting angry, take a breath and try to diffuse them with a phrase of understanding – or take a break and reconvene later.
If any of this feels challenging, practice in front of a mirror! You don’t want to be fake and insincere in the heat of the moment. Being able to deftly and authentically manage your emotions and behavior during a conflict is a learned skill, and practice definitely helps.
The 5-step process
Resolving conflict is a five-step process. We’ll pair each step with an example to help put it all together.
The first step is to think.
Tom felt his face go hot in the meeting as Mark took credit for his idea.
In this moment, Tom has a problem. But he’s in a meeting; it’s not the time or place to speak up. After the meeting, he goes back to his office, fuming. He thinks about confronting Mark in front of the whole office and calling him out. Upon further consideration, he realizes that he has to keep working with Mark – and he doesn’t want to have a tense relationship with him forever.
The second step is to get a better understanding.
Tom calms down. Later, he sees Mark getting coffee and approaches him: “Hey, Mark. I have to say, it caught me off guard when you shared that idea in the meeting. I mean, it was my idea, and now I won’t get the credit I deserve. What exactly happened in there?”
Tom started with an “I” phrase, explaining how he felt and how Mark’s behavior affected him. Then he opened up the floor for Mark to explain.
The third step is to define the problem.
Mark says, “Hey, I just wanted to make sure the idea got heard. It doesn’t matter whose it is.”
Tom is prepared for a little pushback or a denial. He’s not going to take the bait and feel belittled for caring about credit. “Actually, it does matter whose idea it is. Yes, we’re all working together toward the same goal. But around here, people get recognized and rewarded for good ideas.”
Mark’s smug expression fades. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. In that moment, I guess I saw a chance to get on the map, you know?”
Tom further defined the problem using a patient and calm tone of voice; he was assertive but not aggressive. As a result, Mark opened up and was more honest.
The fourth step is to offer your best solution.
“I understand that you wanted to say something valuable in the meeting,” Tom said. “But it came at my expense. Let’s talk about how we can solve this so it doesn’t happen again.”
“OK, sure,” Mark says. “I just won’t share your ideas as my own anymore.”
“That’s great. And if you’ve got ideas of your own but you’re not sure whether to share them, I’d be happy to workshop them with you. Of course, I’ll step aside while you share your ideas in the meeting.”
Tom used a phrase of understanding to help Mark feel heard and find some common ground. He maintained his assertiveness and used a phrase of compromise to encourage Mark to agree to a solution.
The fifth and final step is to agree on the resolution.
“So, going forward, we both agree to give credit where credit is due,” Tom says. “I’m thrilled we could resolve this. I value our working relationship and want it to continue in a positive light.”
The two men shake hands and go their separate ways.
Tom employed phrases of resolution and reconciliation to bring the conversation to a positive ending.
Every conversation might not go as smoothly as it did in this imaginary scenario, but using the five-step process will help you reach resolutions and maintain coworker relationships in real life.
Exceptions to the rules
Every rule has an exception. Sometimes you can skip step two – getting a better understanding – because some behaviors just don’t require you to gain an understanding.
In the case of brownnosers, you may not even need to talk to them. If their brownnosing is just an annoying habit, it will likely get teased out of them by other coworkers. However, if they’re achieving unfair advantages due to their excessive flattery, your problem isn’t with them – it’s with your boss.
If you do decide to confront the brownnoser yourself, skip the understanding and get straight to the problem. For instance, if the offending coworker is being allowed to show up late and forcing you to make up their work, this behavior is unacceptable and should be addressed as such. Here again, you’ll likely need to speak to your manager.
In the case of bullies, you don’t need step two either. Their behavior needs to stop. They probably have some psychological or sociological reasons for their behavior, but that’s not your problem. At work, you have the right to defend your boundaries and be treated with respect. Skip to step three – defining the problem – and proceed from there.
Any behavior that is in and of itself wrong or unacceptable doesn’t require step two to resolve. In the workplace, it’s everyone’s responsibility to manage their own behavior. And when they don’t, you have the right to speak up.
Dealing with a difficult boss
Believe it or not, the same five-step process applies to dealing with a difficult boss. You’ll just need to employ a little more tact – and approach carefully.
Before addressing your boss, first decide whether their behavior is frequent or offensive enough to warrant a confrontation. If you feel you can ignore their behavior, do that – and focus on doing your job the best you can.
But if you need to approach your boss, be sure to show respect for their time. Schedule a meeting. Use your “I” statement to open up the conversation. Be assertive, but lean into the phrases of understanding. Make your solution more of a suggestion than a hard line … unless the situation warrants a hard line.
In some cases, it may be important to know when to leave. If your boss is a bully, you can try conflict resolution. But if the situation doesn’t improve, there’s nothing wrong with updating your resume. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect in the workplace.
In the case of an unethical boss, take a look at your workplace culture. If it’s a culture that tolerates unethical behavior, it may not be the place for you.
When you’re the problem
The trickiest situations occur when the offending coworker is you.
The problem with being the problem is that other people may not know how to skillfully address their conflict with you. For instance, you may be approached by someone who didn’t take the time to think, understand, or define the problem. They may simply walk up and say, “Hey, you just let the door slam in my face, you insensitive jerk. What’s the matter with you?”
In this situation, fight the urge to lash back. Instead, take a breath – and, if you’re still not calm enough, walk away until you are. If you are calm, though, you can initiate a different variation of the five-step process.
First, check your posture, get control of your facial expressions, and speak with a relaxed, controlled tone. Given the situation, you may want to begin with a phrase of apology to open the door to understanding: “I let the door slam in your face? I had no idea. I’m so sorry!”
Your coworker counters, “You saw me there – I saw you look over your shoulder at me. I’m not just going to allow people to treat me like that.”
We’re still in step two, understanding the problem. You might use a variation on a phrase of understanding by saying, “I wouldn’t allow people to treat me like that either. You have every right to expect more respectful behavior.”
“Yeah,” she might say, starting to calm down. “In my last workplace, I was the only woman on the floor. The men there got a kick out of refusing to hold the doors for me. They said I should be treated equally. It was obnoxious.”
She just defined the problem for you. You might say, “Yeah, that’s really obnoxious. Let’s talk about this so it doesn’t happen again. Do you mind hearing my side of the situation?”
She says, “Sure.”
Now you can move into offering a solution: “Sometimes, I get lost in my thoughts. I’m sure I glanced over my shoulder, but I truly don’t remember seeing you. Again, I’m very sorry. I’ll try to be more present when I’m moving from place to place.”
“Thanks,” she says. “And I’ll try not to assume you meant anything by it next time.”
“Well, hopefully there won’t be a next time,” you reply. “I’m glad you confronted me. I wouldn’t want things to be weird in the office.”
See what you did there? You just defused your coworker’s anger by keeping yourself calm and looking for an opportunity to take responsibility for the wrong – or perceived wrong – you incurred.
You have more power than you think when it comes to dealing with difficult people at work. To keep your relationships healthy and tension-free, use “I” phrases when starting conversations; check your body language and voice tone; integrate powerful phrases; and follow the five-step conflict management process. Whether it’s caused by coworkers, bosses, or even yourself, conflict doesn’t have to result in damage.
About the author
Renée Evenson is a small-business consultant specializing in workplace communication and conflict-resolution strategies. Her previous books include Powerful Phrases for Effective Customer Service and Customer Service Training 101. She lives in Saint Simons Island, Georgia.