2 techniques to deal with difficult people at work

Some aspects of 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). You’ve had enough of Tony querying your every decision.

But help is on the horizon in the form of a simple but transformational technique to deal with such interactions. It’s called Advocacy-Enquiry.

Basically, that’s telling and asking.

I’ve had clients tell me tales of how they used the technique to transform their relationships with their reports. 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.


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:

Robert will bounce questions back to Carlos to coach him in decision making. For example, he’ll ask Carlos:

“What do you think you should be doing?” or “What are you trying to achieve?”

Carlos may report that he’s trying to ensure that demonstrator 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’ dependence on him and prevent 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 on the spot here but throws the decision making back to him.

Carlos later comes back with a solution that requires a simple gadget to be attached to each vehicle.  Even then, Carlos asked 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?”


The Outcome:

Carlos is now making independent decisions and using his initiative to solve problems. This frees up Robert’s time and is making is department more successful.


Sticking labels on people:

Before using this method, Robert always shrugged Carlos’ questions off as a symptom of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Syndrome).

Robert realises that what he thought was OCD is really Carlos’ lack of confidence in his own ability to make decisions.

But even he knows that slapping a label on someone is a get-out clause for an individual’s ability to change.  This is often the case for ADHD or Narcissism.  Some people really do have these conditions.  Nevertheless, it’s still often used as a way of brushing off others who don’t.

It also allows us to believe we can’t change the situation.


When to use ‘enquiry’:
  1. You want someone to feel they’ve come to their own decision but actually you’ll 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.


Note this:

Ensure that your intonation and body language reflect curiosity.  It’s easy to sound a little bit patronising with this technique but that won’t make them feel that they’ve made their own mind up about an issue.



The Background:

Selina, a project manager for an engineering company in her early 30’s. 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 dismissing any suggestions she makes as naïve.


The Conversation:

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

This is where Selina presses the ‘tell’ button. Keeping very level-headed, she reminds him that he’s doesn’t work for that company any more. “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.”

She’s not really asking him, but telling, as would be supported by her decisive vocal tone and gesture.  Ron becomes angry with Selina, stating that she’s being ‘nit-picking’ and ‘nagging’ him. Selina, could have become the pantomime dame Ron is inferring her to be.

That would mean chasing him around with a broom, which would definitely have gone nowhere legal, if Selina had had her way.  She remained unprovoked, again stating the obvious:

“I’m going to cut in here,” she says to Ron.  “You don’t work for ABC Contractors any more, 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.”

He blusters and grumbles. “And also, while we’re at it, I should be paid more for my expenses when on the site visit in Preston last month.”

“Once again, Ron, you’ve signed the contract. In the contract, it says your expenses are paid up to a certain limit and that’s already been reimbursed. If you’re not happy with this, we can take it to HR but as I said you have signed the contract.”

All the time, Selina states fact and remains calmly entrenched in her position. Refusing to budge, she cannot be provoked into anger and shows that her stance is unnegotiable.


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. So, job done.

These two 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’:
  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.
Note this:

Firstly, you’ll notice that Selina never say “Sorry, but…” or “I don’t mean to be dogmatic / bossy but I just need to tell you…”

This language is weak and will hold her back.  Women often use such language more than men but I’ve heard men use it too and it can undermine authority.

Secondly, this approach may sound domineering.  However, that’s from your perspective.  One person’s ‘aggressive’ is actually another person’s ‘assertive’.

When you use the advocacy method, suddenly they really hear.  Softly, softly isn’t necessarily a technique they’d respect.  How would you know?  Trial and error or watching who these people actually listen to.


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 actually comply.
  4. If the behaviour hasn’t changed, you’ve 2 options: try the other technique or insist harder if this is the ‘advocacy’ method [telling].

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