Two techniques to deal with difficult people at work

Frankie Kemp

12 February 2024

Some aspects of work life are challenging to dodge. Difficult conversations being one of them. You can’t evade these if you need to supervise, mentor or manage people. It’s part of the job.

You may long to tell Gwyneth in Finance to “just get on with the job and stop passing the buck” (excuse the pun). Or maybe you’ve had enough of Tony querying your every decision?

But help is on the horizon in the form of a simple but transformational communication skills technique to deal with such interactions. It’s called Advocacy-Enquiry, or put another way; telling – also referred to as ‘advocacy’ and asking, termed in some quarters as ‘enquiry’.

I’ve had clients tell me tales of how they’ve used the technique to transform their relationships with their reporting employees. Here I’ll illustrate some conversations where Ask-Tell is used.

I’ve changed the names and details but you’ll get an idea of how powerful this technique is.

ASK [also called the ‘Enquiry Approach’]

  • The Background:

Robert is supervising Carlos, a site logistics coordinator for an automotive company. Carlos seems to lack confidence and is always seeking affirmation from Robert.

  • The Conversation:

Now, Robert will bounce questions back to Carlos in order to coach him in decision making.

Carlos may state that he’s trying to ensure that mileage records are logged accurately. But then he declares he doesn’t know how to do this.

Now Robert could make the easy choice and say, “Don’t worry. I’ll sort it out.” However, he’d only be encouraging Carlos’s dependence on him thereby preventing Carlos from finding his own solutions.

Instead Robert answers:

“How do you think we should do this, Carlos? Have a think and get back to me”

He avoids putting Carlos immediately on the spot and under pressure here, but throws the decision making back to him with a clear instruction to take some time about it.

Carlos later comes back with a solution requiring a simple gadget to be attached to each vehicle.Managing personalities can be time-consuming. In this post, I describe two techniques to help you steer challenging interactions.

However, even then, Carlos asks Robert whether he thinks the management would listen to his suggestion.

Again, Robert holds back from the simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply and pushes the question back to Carlos:

“If you were running the company, wouldn’t you appreciate an effective, cheap way of keeping track of expenses?” This answer encourages Carlos to think for himself and develop a wider appreciation of the business.

  • The Outcome:

Carlos is now making independent decisions and using his initiative to solve problems. This frees up Robert’s time and increasing the efficiency of the department.

When to use ‘enquiry’/ask:

  1. You want someone to feel they’ve come to their own decision but actually you are subtly steering them away from a course of action.
  2. You’d like someone to learn how to find their own solutions to an issue.

Being curious versus being patronising

Another key communication skill to demonstrate when a this technique is to ensure that your intonation and body language reflect curiosity. It’s easy to sound a little bit patronising with this technique

TELL [also called the ‘Advocacy Approach]

  • The Background:

Selina is a project manager for an engineering company in her early 30s. She manages a foreman, Ron. Ron often makes it known that he once ran his own company and reminds Selina that she’s his daughter’s age.

He has a habit of being condescending and dismissing any suggestions she makes as naïve.

  • The Conversation:

There are certain regulatory procedures that Ron needs to follow but he tells Selina that they’re unnecessary, refusing to adhere to them.  He argues that he was never required to execute these checks with his previous company.

This is where Selina presses the ‘tell’ button. Keeping very level-headed, she reminds him that he doesn’t work for that company anymore. “You’re working for me, now Ron.”

She then adds to this irrefutable statement.

“I’m obliged to follow legislation in this case. I’m asking you to do this, please.”

Of course, she’s not really asking him, but telling, as would be supported by her decisive vocal tone and gesture while still maintaining a polite professionalism.

Ron becomes angry with Selina, stating that she’s ‘nit-picking’ and ‘nagging’ him. Selina remains unprovoked, again stating incontestable facts:

“I’m going to cut in here,” she says to Ron, you don’t work for ABC Contractors anymore, Ron. You work here and have signed a contract, where you agreed to comply with all legal requirements, procedures and everything related to those. I’m asking you to do this because it needs to be done. If you don’t agree, we’ll need to take it further. So, I’m requiring this of you.”

Then Ron adds, “What about my expenses for the site visit in Preston last month?  I didn’t get the full amount back.” Selina might respond again by reminding Ron of indisputable parameters:

“Ron, you’ve signed the contract which states that your expenses are reimbursed up to a certain limit. As that limit was reached, we don’t reimburse beyond it. If you are not satisfied with this, we can take this to HR but it is in the contact you signed.”

All the time, Selina states fact and remains calmly entrenched in her position. Refusing to budge, she cannot be provoked into anger. She remains non-negotiable in her stance.

  • The Outcome:

So did Selina get Ron to perform the regulatory procedures in the end?
Was he happy about it?
Is it her job to make him happy?
No. It’s her job to have him do his job, particularly where regulatory compliance is concerned. So, job done.

These two ‘ask and tell’ interactions show characters at each end of a spectrum: one very deferential and the other self-opinionated and dominating. However, in many cases, a combination of these techniques would be used, as they’re context dependent.

  • When to use ‘advocacy’/tell:

  1. When someone seems to be overly assertive and you’ve tried the enquiry method.
  2. When time is short and there is a sense of urgency.

Avoid weak language

Firstly, you’ll notice that Selina never says “Sorry, but…” or “I don’t mean to be dogmatic / bossy but I just need to tell you…” This language is weak and apologetic, will hold her back, dilute her message and undermine her authority.

Secondly, this approach may sound domineering.  However, from the perspective of the person to whom you’re speaking, it’s likely to sound direct.

When you use the advocacy method, suddenly people really hear the message and take the messenger seriously. If you’re hesitant about using this approach, watch the reactions of individuals to others, detecting how they respond to a particular behaviour. There’s room to adapt it if it doesn’t work.

Your Action:

  1. Consider a person you may be finding difficult.
  2. Now decide if this is a situation for asking or telling.
  3. Put whichever technique you’ve chosen into practice. If it doesn’t work immediately, that person may need more time.  For example, if you’ve decided to ‘tell’, they may not seem to accept it (that could seem like a ‘surrender’ to them) but they do eventually comply. If the behaviour hasn’t changed, you have two options: apply enquiry and if doesn’t work, switch to advocacy.

These techniques form part of my communications skills training courses, and also involve conversational skills and problem solving skills, so contact me, Frankie Kemp about the best course to suit you, and become a Communications Ninja.

This article was originally written in 2019 and was completely rewritten in February 2024.

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