BY GORD WOODWARD
BEING A business owner can sometimes
make you feel like you’re a magnet for difficult people. Cranky customers and
employees can test your patience daily.
To survive, remember the golden rule
of conflict resolution. “Keep your cool. The
person being difficult wants to be heard,”
advises Costco member Eric Stutzman,
managing director of ACHIEVE Centre
for Leadership & Workplace Performance
( ca.achievecentre.com) in Winnipeg.
Stutzman wrote a curriculum on dealing with difficult people. In training seminars delivered across the country, he
teaches entrepreneurs how to effectively
manage patterns of behaviour rather than
focusing on the person behind them.
“The definition of a difficult person is
in the eye of the beholder,” he says.
“Nobody thinks of themselves as unreasonable.” Their behaviours can tell a different story. Anger, bullying and
passive-aggressiveness are the most common traits of people viewed as difficult.
We apply the D-word quickly when
we’re on the receiving end of such
behaviours, says Stutzman. “Use the least
amount of judgment possible,” he says.
“Set aside your own agenda and listen.”
Focus on the behaviour and explain how it
“Be pleasant and keep an open mind,”
says John Graham, director of government
relations, prairie region, for the Retail
Council of Canada ( retailcouncil.org),
“because you never really know what their
day has been like.”
Costco member Sean Jennings uses
that approach. Often. As president of
C.I.M. Solutions in Brampton, Ontario, an
IT outsourcing firm that runs a help desk,
he’s in the business of dealing with difficult
people. “In our industry, they don’t call
here happy. They’re calling in not in a good
mood, [and they are] highly stressed.”
He tries to find out why they’re being
difficult. “It may have nothing to do with
you,” he notes. If that’s the case, you can be
a calming influence by helping them iden-
tify the source of their distress. If the pat-
tern of bad behaviour continues, you may
need a stronger tactic. “We have fired one
or two customers in the last few years
because they were very rude and aggres-
sive,” he adds.
And what about handling difficult staff
members? “A disgruntled employee can
undermine your business,” Graham says.
Set consistent expectations for behaviour
and monitor them. “While everyone has a
bad day or mishandles a situation,”
Graham says, “businesses can help ensure
they are providing a consistent customer
experience through great training and
There’s one other key success factor for
dealing with difficult people—especially
those in your personal life: understanding
your role in the situation.
“To really change the actions of a
person we find difficult, we need to also
examine how we have contributed,” says
Stutzman. “The best way to do that is to
ask them. Then we need to be prepared
to listen, manage our defensiveness and
commit to acting in ways that better serve
the other person and our own interests.” C
Gord Woodward is a writer and business
author in British Columbia.
Focus on the behaviour, not the personality
COSTCO MEMBER Jeff Mowatt, a customer service strategist who runs JC
Mowatt Seminars in Calgary, says customers can be mistaken for being difficult when they actually have good
reason to be upset. He explains, “First,
they did not get what they were
expecting. And second, now they have
to take the time to address the issue.
This is not what they signed up for.”
How you respond can make the dif-
ference between continued loyalty and
losing a sale. Mowatt advocates a sim-
ple strategy: “I can summarize it in
three words: ownership, empathy, apol-
ogy.” First, accept responsibility for the
situation rather than blaming someone
else. Second, let difficult people know
you can see their perspective. “The
most powerful words we can use are
‘that sounds frustrating,’ ” says
Mowatt. And third, say you’re sorry for
not meeting the buyer’s expectation.
Just be careful how you apologize,
says lawyer Kathryn Frelick, a partner
with Miller Thomson LLP in Toronto: “It’s
really an art form.” Legislation in a number of provinces “essentially says that
an apology can’t be used as an admission of liability,” she adds, so acknowledge the negative experience but steer
clear of admitting negligence.—GW