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Coach Kim: How to have good conversations with difficult people

By Kim Giles, Contributor | Posted - Feb. 8, 2021 at 7:33 a.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — I often hear from readers who have to deal with someone in the workplace who is highly defensive and combative in their communication. This person might be a co-worker, employee, manager or even a client.

Everyone will have to communicate, at some point, with someone who is upset, offended and on the offensive, so I'd like to give you some tips on how to best handle these difficult conversations.

When a person comes across as combative or defensive in their communication, I believe one or both of the following things is happening.

  1. That person has a great deal of fear around not being good enough. This fear is making them feel unsafe and they are in protection mode. They are subconsciously focused on trying to make these painful feelings of inadequacy stop. Often their ego has stepped up to try to protect them and is encouraging behavior that is arrogant or defensive. They might be needy for attention, critical of themselves and others, never satisfied with how they are treated, or distrustful. It is important that you see these people and their bad behavior accurately. They're not just arrogant, combative and difficult; they're likely feeling scared and in pain. When you see the behavior accurately, you can handle communication with them better.
  2. That person has a great deal of fear around loss and their life not being good enough. They feel at risk and unsafe. They are in protection mode and subconsciously focused on preventing themselves from being walked on, taken from, or mistreated any further. Their subconscious focus is making these feelings of losing something stop. They might show up as defensive, controlling or argumentative because they think that is the only way to be safe. People who are battling a fear of loss might also act controlling, disrespectful, angry, unwilling to change or seek help, or full of complaints. It is important that you see these people accurately as scared so you can communicate with them better.

You may also find many people are struggling with both fears and are in a world of hurt, pain and fear. They are difficult to communicate with for a reason. There is something going on with them that has them in an unbalanced state.

If this person is a co-worker, client, family member or boss, you will need to find a way to work and communicate with them without things becoming ugly. Fortunately, there are some things you can do that could make them feel safer and give you a better chance of having a productive conversation:

Work to be emotionally calm and balanced

If you go into a conversation scared about having it, the other person will get defensive before you say a word. Make sure you know your intrinsic value cannot change no matter what happens in this conversation. Remember, in the end, this will be an experience that will serve you, teach you or grow you. You are safe here. Throughout the conversation, keep reminding yourself there is nothing to fear. This is just a conversation and you are just going to try to show up for this human being and be kind.

Care about the person first and the topic second

Your only goal upfront in the conversation is to show this person they are important, cared about and worth listening to. If you have another agenda you need to accomplish, it must come after you take the time to show this person you care about them. If you take the time to validate their worth by asking questions, and then honoring and respecting their thoughts and feelings first, they will be less defensive when it's time to address the issue.

Have an exit strategy and a time limit

Set up this conversation when you have a very natural time limit (like with another appointment). Have an assistant or someone come get you at the end time to assure the conversation stays within these boundaries you've set.

Set some rules of engagement and pick your battles

Let this person know that because you are short on time, you only want to discuss one thing and clarify any issues that you don't want to talk about today. Know ahead of time what the most important issue is and be sure it's important enough to be worth the effort. Know exactly what you hope to achieve at the end. It helps to write these things on paper and get clear of your intention ahead of time. Make sure that making this person feel cared about and heard are your first and foremost goals.

Establish the enemy is an issue, not a person

Sit on the same side instead of across from each other. This makes it feel like the two of you are against an issue or problem, not against each other. Clarify that you want to find a way to create a win for all involved.

Calm their fears with validation and reassurance

Make sure you have validated them and talked about all the things they do right first. They need reassurance before you tell them anything negative. This should help quiet the fears that usually drive bad communication behavior.

Ask a lot of questions and listen

The most important part of a difficult conversation is the beginning, when you make it all about them by asking what they think and feel about the issue. Spend as much time as possible here. The deepest way to show you value, honor, and respect another person is by listening to their views, fears and concerns, and really respecting their right to feel the way they do. If possible, see if you can ask enough questions that you can get them to tell you everything you had wanted to say. It's always better if they figure it out without you telling them.

If you are personally attacked, don't defend yourself

Instead of fighting back against a verbal attack, ask more questions like, "Tell me more about that?" or "What makes you feel that way?" Dive into the attack instead of fighting against it. Just because they think this about you doesn't make it true. Listening to their views doesn't diminish you. Let them get it all out and share all their thoughts and feelings about you. They may be shocked to find you open instead of fighting back. Show them you can handle an attack and are still not scared. None of this affects your intrinsic, unchangeable value.

Put yourself in their shoes

Try to see things from their perspective and look for common ground you can agree on. Don't try to convince them of anything. Focus your attention on trying to understand them. Even if you cannot possibly understand their views, the fact that you are trying will come through.

Use 'I' statements, not 'you' statements

When you do need to share your views, make sure you use "I" statements and focus on your own perspective, observations, thoughts and feelings. Avoid attacks that start with "you" do this or that. Instead, say: "In my opinion," "I have observed," "I feel," "I believe." You are always entitled to your perspective and it's harder to argue with.

Be realistic about what to expect

Realize that people who are deep in a state of fear are only concerned with one thing: their own safety. They don't have the capacity to show up for you, but they might be able to do what you ask of them — if you ask in a respectful way and focus on only future behavior. Use statements like "Would you be willing to do this a little differently moving forward?" or "Next time that happens, would you be open to handling it this way?"

Ask Coach Kim

Do you have a question for Coach Kim, or maybe a topic you'd like her to address? Email her at

These tips will give you the best shot at a productive conversation, but there are some people you just won't be able to work well with. Don't take this personally. It is not about you.

If this is the case, you will have to avoid dealing with them as much as possible or take the problem up the chain of command. You can also use this opportunity to work on yourself and grow. Try working on staying calm, strong and confident in the face of attacks. It's great practice.

You can do this.

More LIFEadvice:

Kimberly Giles

About the Author: Kimberly Giles

Coach Kim Giles is a master life coach and speaker who helps clients improve themselves and their relationships. She is the author of "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and has a free clarity assessment available on her website. Learn more at

Editor's Note: Anything in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended, nor should it be interpreted, to (a) be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition; (b) create, and receipt of any information does not constitute, a lawyer-client relationship. You should NOT rely upon any legal information or opinions provided herein. You should not act upon this information without seeking professional legal counsel; and (c) create any kind of investment advisor or financial advisor relationship. You should NOT rely upon the financial and investment information or opinions provided herein. Any opinions, statements, services, offers, or other information or content expressed or made available are those of the respective author(s) or distributor(s) and not of KSL. KSL does not endorse nor is it responsible for the accuracy or reliability of any opinion, information, or statement made in this article. KSL expressly disclaims all liability in respect to actions taken or not taken based on the content of this article.

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