Use soft words and strong arguments.” (English Proverb)

Since my post on the positive aspects of having a contrarian in the group I have received questions on how to deal with difficult co-workers. There are many types of difficult people, for this particular post I will be talking about the highly confrontational ones.

Difficult people seem to love to argue. They have a very strong sense of “right and wrong” and feel they are the righteous defenders of the truth. They are highly argumentative and disruptive, and more often than not bring a lot of negativity to the group. As they do not like to conform with the norm nor do they care what you think, do not try to convince them otherwise or you may find yourself quite frustrated.

Independently of why they are so difficult we still need to deal with them. A little bit of emotional intelligence can go a long way. Following is a short list of tried-and-true tips to help you during your next encounter with your confrontational co-worker. Of course, the following are only few suggestions (not an all inclusive list) and not everything suggested here may apply to your case. Simply use what works for you.

  1. Acknowledge their collaboration: thank them for bringing up the objection or negative comment. Ask why they are bringing this up and how this new information can be beneficial to the group/product. Try to understand their reasons for objecting.
  2. Show that you listen: confirm what is accurate in their statement and outline what needs further clarification.
  3. If applicable, accept the challenge: turn the comment into a question for the group: ask how or if they can use the new information/objection to their benefit – maybe this conflicting information can add value to what the group already has and improve their performance;
  4. Separate the person from the issue: don’t make it about the difficult person, it’s the issue that needs to be addressed, the conflicting comment. So reframe the negative statement into a positive one and turn it into a question. For example: (contrarian) “This is so stupid, I don’t understand why we have to do it” – (leader’s response)“I understand you still have questions about the validity of this project. Can you be more specific as to exactly what your concerns are?”
  5. Agree to disagree. when you find yourself in a gridlock where continue to engaging with the difficult person will not benefit anyone, agree to disagree. Confirm that you heard their point of view (contrarians need to know they have been heard), thank them for collaborating with the group (they need to know they are “the best”), and acknowledge that you will agree to disagree in order to move on.
  6. Moving forward. Bring the focus back to the issue/project/group and how to move forward/meet deadlines/reach goals, etc.

For the most part, these suggestions work even with the most difficult person but if they persist engaging in an argument, firmly but politely establish that you will meet later on to discuss it, however at this time you need to move forward as a group. Do not engage in power struggle nor beat around the bush as it shows lack of confidence from your part. You must stop engaging with them and move on.

Lastly, remember to always document everything. As a lawyer I cannot emphasize this enough. Send a quick email to the group summarizing the meeting and highlighting the dissonant information and what the conclusion was. Hopefully with time, people will become less difficult and more interesting.

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