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The challenge is real
Some industries are notorious for having to deal with difficult people. Airlines. Retail.
But we all come across difficult people in our professional lives from time to time. There are many different types of “difficult people,” but our first thought tends to go to the angry yellers. And as leaders, we need to step up and proactively address the situation, in order to protect our people and hopefully de-escalate the conflict.
Keep calm, and carry on. A conflict is like an invitation to a party—just because you are invited doesn’t mean you have to go. Check in with yourself. Take a few deep breaths. Make sure you have a handle on your own emotional response. Keep your voice measured and low. In fact, speaking with confidence and energy, but in a near-whisper, can often reduce the intensity of the discussion, as the person starts to mirror and match your decibel level, because not doing so makes them feel out-of-control.
Don’t tell people to “calm down.” That never works, and often enrages people further. You can validate their personal experience—”I can see how much this upsets you,” or “Clearly, you are deeply upset about this.” For some people, this self-referential activity—being made aware of how they appear to others—will get them to pull it back in. If not, they may agree with your comment, e.g., “OF COURSE I’M UPSET!” But this has them talking and seeing you as a potential ally, rather than an adversary. Go in with the mindset that the person was probably having a really bad day before they even started talking to you, and it will help you keep a less adversarial, more sympathetic, tone.
End the call or the meeting. If they continue to yell, say something like, “It’s not productive to continue this discussion while you are yelling. Good-bye.” Then stand up and walk out. End the Teams call. Hang up the phone. Get your people out of there—they deserve to be treated better. And so do you. Be calm and polite while you do it.
If they are physically threatening anyone, document it. It’s time to pull out the phones and hit record. Calmly but firmly ask the person to leave the premises. If they refuse to leave, call the police, as they are now trespassing. Do not lay hands on them first—that’s assault. If they lay hands on you or one of your team, press charges.
Fire them as a client. If the client’s rep is the one doing the yelling, make sure you let their boss know you no longer will work with someone who acts that way. If it’s the client, finish up the contract and don’t sign on to do future work for them. If they are a customer, ban them from your business.