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5 expert ways to deal with difficult people — and make them love you
The perfect arsenal for your next charm offensive
 
Melvin Udall from As Good As It Gets — a classic curmudgeon.
Melvin Udall from As Good As It Gets — a classic curmudgeon. (Screen shot)

I've posted a great deal on working with difficult people and how to make people like you. What new research and expert advice can we use to better deal with difficult people?

1. The feedback sandwich doesn't work — this does

Nobody likes delivering bad news. Stanford's Jeffrey Pfeffer recommends having someone else do it whenever possible. But what about when it's unavoidable? Don't do the old "feedback sandwich" of positive comment, negative comment, positive comment. Research shows it's better to be briefly negative and then offer an extended list of positives.

An even worse prescription than praise before criticism is the so-called "criticism sandwich": 1) specific positive comments, 2) specific negative comments, and 3) an overarching positive remark. The idea here is that by bracketing the negative remarks with positive comments, you make the criticism palatable. Unfortunately, given retroactive interference and proactive enhancement, a very different outcome occurs: the criticism blasts the first list of positive comments out of the listeners' memory. They then think hard about the criticism (which will make them remember it better) and are on the alert to think even harder about what happens next. What do they get? Positive remarks that are too general to be remembered.

It is also important to consider that receiving an equal number of positive and negative remarks feels negative overall because of hedonic asymmetry and the self-serving bias. It is far better to briefly present a few negative remarks and then provide a long list of positive remarks… You should also provide as much detail as possible within the positive comments, even more than feels natural, because positive feedback is less memorable. [The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What We Can Learn About Ourselves from Our Machines]

(More on effectively giving feedback — from the guys at Pixar – here.)

2. How to respond to impossible questions

"Which dress should I wear tonight?"

Get her to tell you the reasoning behind several choices and let her talk herself into one. Then agree. [The Art of Civilized Conversation: A Guide to Expressing Yourself With Style and Grace]

"What did you think of my violin solo?"

If you really don't like an artist's work, you don't have to lie, but find something other than a professional yardstick to measure it by. Praise the effort that made it happen, the sincerity that it shows, the artist's progress, and the heart that went into it. Ask him to tell you what it means to you. [The Art of Civilized Conversation: A Guide to Expressing Yourself With Style and Grace]

"Does this make me look fat?"

Never say "yes", "not really", "only from the back," or the obvious answer: "I refuse to answer because I don't want you to beat me up." Instead, dissemble a little: "That shirt doesn't flatter you as well as the blue one does. I like the blue one better." [The Art of Civilized Conversation: A Guide to Expressing Yourself With Style and Grace]

"Do you like the present that I gave you?"

Always acknowledge the thoughtfulness of a person's gift, even if it's something you'll never use. "Thank you so much for thinking of me" is always a safe reply. [The Art of Civilized Conversation: A Guide to Expressing Yourself With Style and Grace]

(More secrets to clicking with people here. )

3. How to go on the offensive — without being offensive

You want to get them on your side to avoid conflict. But how? Repeated studies show that flattery works.

The results of this study suggest the following social rule: don't hesitate to praise, even if you're not sure the praise is accurate. Receivers of the praise will feel great and you will seem thoughtful and intelligent for noticing their marvelous qualities — whether they exist or not. [The Art of Civilized Conversation: A Guide to Expressing Yourself With Style and Grace]

But avoid "fixed-mindset" praise; if you tell people their success is inevitable because of innate qualities it can be devastating when things don't work out.

Telling people that they are destined to succeed before they attempt a new activity can make any failures crushing. Thus, fixed-mindset praise, meant to make people feel better, can actually make people feel much worse about their work and more negative about the person who praised them if it turns out to be inaccurate. [The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What We Can Learn About Ourselves from Our Machines]

People like others who they feel are "on their team" or who "do something just for them." When dealing with hostile or belligerent people, you can leverage this to make them feel closer to you.

Car salespeople will often say something like, "You are a very nice couple. I'm not going to let you buy this car because it's not right to you. It's true that we make the most money on selling this one, but I just can't do that to you." Savvy salespeople imply through this that they are abandoning their company team and becoming a team with the customers. They can leverage the trick of scapegoating their natural team… "My boss is going to kill me, but I'm going to challenge him to get you the car at this price. He's obsessed with every penny, but I'm committed to making this work." [The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What We Can Learn About Ourselves from Our Machines]

(More on effective influence methods from persuasion guru Robert Cialdini here.)

4. When you are forced to argue

They won't let it go. How can you deescalate without disengaging? As always, the key is listening. And good listening means the other person knows you listened. Here's a great four step process for arguing — with minimal breaking of furniture.

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1) You should attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."

2) You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3) You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4) Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). [Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking]

(More on how to win every argument here.)

5. A final thought

Remember that the key is never what you said, it's what they heard. And if you want to make things better, ignore what they said and focus on what they meant.

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