This is how to deal with difficult people and negotiations at work

Storm clouds gathering

There are times at work when you have to deal with difficult people and negotiations at the same time. Sometimes you have to deal with difficult situations and negotiations at the same time too. This commentary explores sources to provide you with tools you can use to prepare for and address these types of conflicts.

This is not new. Other articles have stressed for example addressing people that don’t play fair, dealing with difficult co-workers, and in general how to deal with difficult people. We have also shared that what you tell yourself going into a negotiation with a person that is difficult to work with matters. You need to approach this situation with an open mind. As hard as this is, you still need to center yourself. You need to calm the fire within. You need to go in with the intention of working with the person to understand their interests. This can be initiated with open ended questions.

This article is going to look specifically at applying negotiation skills to overcome negative emotional reactions at work and applying specific strategies. The commentary that follows will help you manage conflict at work even in difficult situations with hard to work with people.


Overcoming negative emotional reactions at work


The first step is to ask yourself why you view the other party as being difficult. What is it about them, or what they do that gives you pause? Label it. Write it down. Then, explore the reason why.

After you have labeled it and written it down ask the question of yourself or your team , could I ow we actually be encouraging their behavior by what I (we) am doing?

Could I be part of the problem? What are my own feelings?

Sometimes we react negatively to the negative in others and we don’t know why. Sometimes it is because we know we have the same or a similar fault. When we know that, this can contribute to our anger according to psychologists. You can read more on this topic at this link from the Harvard Program on Negotiation.

Could it be that we have someone on our team that is a poison pill? That is, that is actually undermining our ability to work with the other team?  Would they prefer litigation to a negotiation?  Are there personal issues or incentives that inadvertently lead that person to be negative? Consider all of the members of the team and their perspectives.  Is it possible that someone has ownership of the issue and only sees our side?  Is it possible that someone is not interested in exploring the interests of the other side?

Be sure to explore your own biases and those of team members that may be negatively impacting the negotiation.


Specific strategies to overcome conflict at work


At some time or another you may find yourself in a high pressure or difficult situation with someone that you have no connection with personally. Once again, the issue has to do with calming the fire within us before going forward as a first step. As with any negotiation you need to actively listen and understand the other party’s interests before you can pursue your interests. We all like to be listened to. Ask questions and listen to their concerns first before you initiate your concerns.


 Consider a dispute resolution system


Little things that were annoyances can become festering irritants. If disputes are addressed simply one issue at a time this can be very inefficient. Today many organizations have developed systems to address conflict in the work place. For example, there can mediation, by trained mediators.

Today there is an entire field oriented towards dispute resolution design.

This may be something to consider or to elevate in management for consideration.

As an example, I worked with an entity with over 1,200 employees that had over 300 unfair labor practices, equal employment opportunity complaints and union grievances. An initiative that brought in top management, middle management, front line managers, human resources, the equal employment opportunity officer, labor relations and the union explored options. After exploring options, a mediation system was proposed. A test commenced. Managers and employees were trained. The process proceeded. Five months later there were only 30 remaining. About 10% of the managers were no longer managers. They found safe landings in the organization or they decided they did not like the changing culture and left. From employee satisfaction surveys, it was clear this made a significant positive change in employee satisfaction. Longer term this also improved business results and customer satisfaction too.

Considering such an initiative and developing a dispute resolution process may be one way to address conflicts at work with a broad strategy.

This strategy takes some time to develop, but it certainly is better than having a case by case approach.


 Consider feedforward


We are all familiar with feedback. When someone receives constructive feedback that may be negative, they are told what the negative was and to correct that in the future. In other words. Don’t do that again. Consider another alternative. That is feedforward. With feedforward, the situation is addressed. A question is asked regarding what may done in a similar situation in the future.

The employee and manager work together to come with a plan to implement the change in process in the future.

Similarly, in a negotiation, the two parties work together to find a solution that can meet both of their interests, given the previous situation.

With feed forward in a negotiation, you work together to address concerns focusing on the future.

In this situation it is important to frame the situation and to provide meaningful commentary. Meaningful feedforward asks questions. It is specific. Meaningful feedback is concise and to the point. It remains positive without blame to others.

The technique of describing the situation in neutral rather than negative or accusing terms initiates the process. Next explain what you thought and why. The third step is to share how you feel. Once you initiate these three steps of:

When you…

I thought…, and

I feel

Then the other party can reflect and respond as well. No matter what avoid the two stinky twins of BO and BS. That is Blaming Others (BO) or Blaming Self (BS). Instead focus on the problem and don’t blame anyone.

Identify your own personal triggers and don’t let them interfere with remaining neutral. By calming the fire within (no matter what), and applying this technique, it may be possible to explore interests mutually. Once you understand interests you can focus on a productive negotiation.


 Be hard on the problem and soft on the people


First it is necessary to define the problem properly.

 Be careful here and do not define the problem either to narrowly or to broadly. Pause and make sure you are focusing on the right problem and not the people involved. Our first inclination is often to blame others. Individuals may be responsible. Even so, why is this a concern? Define the problem so that you can explore the problem without blame.

Explore what the positives may be if the problem was reworded in such a way as to overcome the situation.

 Say an employee screwed up and forgot a deadline. The deadline was critical. A client is upset. Upon an investigation of the situation, the employee simply screwed up and forgot the deadline. Rather than blame the employee, explore what could be done mutually to prevent this in the future. As a result perhaps some form of a suspense system with the email system or a hard copy “tickler file” may help? Are their other ideas that could have been explored for the future? Work on this together.

By taking a joint effort approach this can even lead to positive team building. By asking open ended questions, actively listening and working together you may actually build trust and be surprised at what you may accomplish.




Hopefully the ideas presented above related to overcoming negative emotions at work and the three strategies presented here may offer you constructive ways to deal with difficult situations and negotiations with people at work. Give them a try. I would be interested in your feedback.


About the author


Mike is a professional speaker, negotiator and mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 11 books including Business Valuations and the IRS: Five Books in One, The Servant Manager and Peaceful Resolutions. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, NSA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]