How to Talk to Difficult People so they cooperate with you at work

So you’ve got one of those projects where you have to rely on other people to do parts of the job, before you can complete your task?

And you’ve tried telling one of the people when things need to be done– and they aren’t exactly co-operating? In fact, you’re so used to their non-cooperating that you dread asking them every time you need something?

We all know difficult people, and it’s frustrating to have to work with them, and, really, how are you going to get your project done when this other person won’t do his or her part, or won’t do it on time???

Sometimes it’s all in how you ask. I’ve noticed that when you say to someone, “I need you to give me this” or “I need you to do such-and-so”, some people –difficult people – tend to respond not very helpfully. Maybe they ignore your calls or emails. Maybe they give you passive-aggressive responses (“the scanner/copier/internet broke so I can’t get you that information”), or maybe they just keep saying, “I’m getting to it” when they never do. Their behavior, if not their language, is saying, “You need something from me – oh yeah? – Well, make me!”

They may not be doing the task that’s needed but they are doing the job of showing who is in charge (and it’s not you).

For some people the workplace is a continuing test of who’s dominant and who’s submissive. It’s tempting to see this as more often in play in male-male interactions, but in the professional world there’s plenty of hierarchical dominance-striving to go around in interactions amongst all genders.

So, how to do you get your people to work with you if they’re difficult people and stuck on dominance routines?

The best solution, of course, is to have good mutual relationships – real friendships, or instrumental acquaintanceships where you do favors for each other, or mutual goals you can appeal to. Or, if the person involved works “for you”, your “boss” authority may help motivate them.

But if those relationships aren’t possible with some people- Here are some tips on using language that can help –

  1. Try taking the one-down position. Ask for help, don’t demand. “Can you help me with something?” This is a softer start to an encounter than, “I need you to do something”.
  2. Try using impersonal language that focuses on the task to be done, and the goal involved, not on the people involved. Say something like, “the data is needed by 5 p.m. today so the report can be written”, or “The contract requires that this piece get taken to the loading dock, so that the customer can pick it up”.
  3. Try to keep personal pronouns out of it. Don’t say “I”, and try not to say “you”. (Here’s an experiment to test and practice this: For five or ten minutes every day, for one week, do not use either the words “I” or “you” in conversation with people. This isn’t easy to do, but play with it and see how it changes the dynamics.
    1. When you’ve got a request you need to make to a difficult person, try writing down the request beforehand – see if you can take the personal pronouns out. If you need to use the “you” word, find a way to say it that empowers the other person, that doesn’t imply subservience.
    2. Don’t say: “Can you deliver this to the printer by five?” but Do Say: “ This has to go to the printer by five; can you take charge of that getting done?”
  4. Say “thank you”. After you have made the request, and before it is done. (And then again after the task is done, of course). If you have said thank you at the time of the request – (and the person hasn’t pushed back against it right then – then there is some implied agreement between you. The person is more likely to follow through, having accepted (even if quietly) your “thank you”, that implies their compliance.

These techniques have worked well for some people in their professional lives; I’ll be interested in your feedback on how they work, or don’t work, in yours…