Women leading women

How to handle the business contacts from hell!

As a business owner, employee or just human being, you will have to deal with many people in both a professional and personal setting. The vast majority of people we meet in the course of business are polite, friendly and generally not a nightmare – at least not straight away! Eventually though, situations are bound to crop up, such as disputes, complaints, sales pitches, negotiations, interviews etc., that are made even more challenging by the fact that the people you are dealing with are not blessed with great interpersonal skills. But if we want our business to succeed, we may not always have the luxury of choice in who we deal with!

How you handle difficult people will depend on the circumstances – e.g. whether it is an interviewee, a supplier, a potential or existing customer, a contractor, a colleague etc.  If you are struggling to have a focused discussion with a business contact you might find these suggested techniques and phrases useful.

If they’re uncommunicative

One word answers, shrugging shoulders – it’s like pulling teeth!

Use open questions to draw out more information from them – ‘Can you tell me more about…’, ‘Can you give me more detail on…’

Give hints to get them to talk for longer – ‘Can you spend ten minutes telling me about…’

Ask for clarification – If they are being vague ask…‘Can you be more specific’, ‘Why exactly was that’, ‘What precisely do you mean by that’ etc.

Be direct – e.g. ‘I really need more information than you are giving me in order to fully understand/make the right decision’

If appropriate, ask why they are acting this way, e.g. ‘You don’t seem to want to give me much information – why is that?’

If they’re rambling

At the other end of the scale – why give a 2-minute synopsis of what you need to know when they can give the half-hour version?

Ask lots of specific questions to get the relevant info

Repeat and summarise key parts to bring them back to the point – ‘So what you’re saying is…’, ‘Just to ensure I’ve understood this correctly…’, ‘I’m particularly interested in what you said about…’

Give hints to be more to the point – ‘Can you tell me briefly…’, ‘Can you sum up in a few words…’, ‘What are the key points…’ ,‘We only have a few minutes more so can you just tell me…’

Be direct – ‘That is very interesting but doesn’t really answer my question – what I need to know is…’

Interrupt them (if appropriate) – ‘Can I just stop you there… can we go back to…’

If they’re overly nervous

They keep apologizing, fluffing it up and telling you just how nervous they are.

Acknowledge that they are nervous but don’t dwell on it – ‘I know this is difficult for you/can be a bit nerve wracking, but there’s no need to worry/please try and relax’, etc

Build rapport and get them used to talking to you – use something familiar or unimportant first, eg their journey, the weather, or whatever

Offer a drink – help to make them feel comfortable

Don’t keep drawing attention to their nerves – after first reassurance, just get on with the meeting. Be friendly and informal if appropriate but remain businesslike

Try and be relaxed yourself – this should make them feel more relaxed as well

If they’re distressed

Oh dear – you don’t know if it’s genuine or just a drastic negotiation technique to get you to knock a few quid off their invoice, but here come the waterworks…

Have tissues and a glass of water/tea/coffee handy

Be sympathetic but remain businesslike – ‘I realise this is upsetting for you but its important that we carry on and sort this out’

If possible don’t let it disrupt the matter at hand – allow them a few minutes to compose themselves but only stop for a break if really necessary. If they ask to stop the meeting, suggest a five or ten minute break.

Don’t fuss over them or indulge them – whether their distress is genuine or exaggerated, it is likely to be prolonged rather than reduced if you do this.

If they’re belligerent/defensive/confrontational

Someone’s feeling feisty! There are other specific techniques for dealing with forceful criticism, complaints etc, but here are some general tips…

Don’t rise to the bait or get drawn into heated debate/argument/conflict – remain as neutral as possible and deflect inflammatory comments or questions – ‘That isn’t relevant to this conversation’; ‘I don’t intend to discuss that with you right now’; ‘I believe we should be focusing on…’

Refuse to answer inappropriate questions – ‘I’ll happily discuss that with you separately but this isn’t the forum for that’; ‘That isn’t relevant to this discussion but we can arrange to talk about it another time’; ‘I’m afraid its not within my remit to discuss that with you’.

Be direct – ‘I’m getting the impression that you’re feeling defensive/uncomfortable/are quite sensitive about this – why is that?’ ‘We need to co-operate if we’re to sort this out/make the right decision – are you prepared to work with me on this?’

Maintain your authority and control – ‘I’ve stated our position on this and I’m not prepared to discuss it any further/it’s not open to debate. I’m ending this meeting now.’

If they’re aggressive/abusive

Just as well there’s a desk between you – scary stuff!

Don’t retaliate, lose your temper or raise your voice – remain controlled and formal

Don’t be cowed or let yourself be intimidated – remain firm and assertive

Don’t tell someone to calm down – this invariably exacerbates the situation!

State if their behaviour is unacceptable and be specific about it – ‘You are shouting/swearing/waving your arms about’ ‘I find your behaviour/language/tone of voice unacceptable/inappropriate/offensive/abusive and unnecessary’. Don’t refer to their ‘attitude’ – this is too ambiguous and tends to be inflammatory!

State the behaviour or conduct you need to see from them – ‘Please sit down/lower your voice/answer the question’

State the consequences – ‘If you are not prepared to behave in a reasonable manner/discuss this in a civilised way/act with professional respect and courtesy then I will have no option but to no longer work with you/cancel the order/speak to your manager’

If necessary stop the meeting -‘I want to discuss this with you/resolve this situation but I am not going to have a conversation with you while you are behaving like this’; ‘I’m leaving now/ending this conversation – we will continue when you are prepared to discuss this in a professional manner’. Worst-case scenario – if they are uncontrollable and all else fails, simply walk out of the room, return a couple of minutes later and try again.

Good luck, and remember – keep calm and carry on!

Have you had to deal with a difficult or emotional business contact? What did you do to resolve the situation and did it work? Do share your experiences with us.


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  1. Carole Bozkurt says

    Hi Tara

    Great article. Do you have any tips for me to use with people who get very excited about a project and then loses interest when the novelty wears off and then shuts down communication and this mode of operating is a repeated pattern of behaviour?

    Many thanks. Carole

    1. Tara Daynes says

      Hi Carole – thanks for the comment!
      It can be frustrating when people blow hot & cold like that. To keep the momentum going & try to prevent them from losing interest, be proactive, don’t leave the ball in their court & don’t leave anything open-ended – so instead of waiting indefinitely for them to get back to you on something, set deadlines or dates for progress. E.g. “I’ll give you a call on the 15th & we can discuss the next steps” , or ” Let’s get a date in the diary for next week to meet again for an update”.
      It is easy for people to ignore emails & phone messages, so be persistent &, without actually stalking them, be visible! So drop by their desk for a face-to-face chat instead of emailing. If they are being particularly stubborn, try head-on feedback & a direct question – such as “You haven’t made any progress on this/taken this further/responded to my questions etc. & I’m concerned that you seem to have lost interest in this project. Can you tell me straight what the situation is?”
      If they do drop the project, you are quite entitled to ask why, but you can do this without coming across as belligerent – e.g. “Can you please give me some feedback as to why you don’t want to progress with this, so I can take that into account when I’m next putting a project together?”
      Essentially, be determined & don’t let yourself be fobbed off without a response that you’re happy with. A previous boss of mine used to call me ‘Tara the Terrier’ as he said I had a terrier-like tenacity & once I’d got my teeth into something, I wouldn’t let go of it! But it can pay off (even if people just get so sick of it they give in!)
      Best wishes

      1. Carole says

        Many thanks Tara for the great comments and suggestions. I will be putting them into practice immediately.