There are two parts to preparing to deal with difficult people. One is research, but more importantly is knowing how to prepare. The goal is to have the difficult person relate what they want. In order to achieve that goal, you need to establish a comfort level that will makes it safe for the other party to share what they believe and need. Focus your preparation on identifying and being able to diffuse the negative sentiments of the other party.
The third strategy is to ask proof of life questions. Proof of life questions come from hostage negotiations where negotiators ask for evidence that hostages are still alive. When dealing with a difficult person start out by asking questions to determine if a deal is possible. Questions may include, “What would be a perfect result for you?” “What are the major issues you want to resolve?” “If we can’t reach a deal, what do you plan to do?” Asking these types of questions provide insight if a deal can be made at all and if not, you won’t waste time, energy and intellectual capital trying to resolve a problem that has no reasonable resolution. Proof of life questions requires you to directly address the problem, attempt to develop a solution and determine if salvation is possible.
Additionally, ask questions that are designed to get a no response. For example, Ronald Reagan asked during his 1980 campaign if American were better off today than they were four years ago? The obvious answer at the time was no and Reagan won a landslide victory. Examples during a conversation with a difficult person may include, “Do you oppose reaching a solution?” “Do you believe that it is impossible to work this problem out?” “Do you believe that failure is in your best interest?”
The final strategy to deal with difficult people is to confront undesired behaviors by employing empathy and self-deprecation. Acknowledging that you understand why the difficult person feels the way they do or believes what they believe helps to create a safer environment that allows for more open and less guarded conversation.
Expecting the worst, knowing how to prepare, asking proof of life and no response questions and employing empathy and self-deprecation will help you to deal with the most difficult people and situations more effectively by identifying what’s most important and creating a safe environment for meaningful conversation.