Difficult People

by Suzanne Neville

Managing performance

Both parties often anticipate that difficulties will arise during performance review discussions. Below are some examples of difficult situations and ways to handle them.

The person agrees too quickly

If someone agrees very quickly with all your comments, it may be because they may feel intimidated or just want to get the meeting over as fast as possible. Try saying,

You agreed to that point, but I feel you may have some reservations. I’d like to hear them if you do...


Be alert to nonverbal communication conflicting with spoken words.

Check understanding by asking reflective questions. Ask the person to summarise major points:

Just to make sure we concur, I’d like you to summarise our discussion about cost cutting. What is your understanding of the problem and what needs to be done?

The person is very quiet

If someone is very quiet and is not communicating, you can draw them out by

  • Starting with a subject of particular interest to them
  • Asking open and encouraging questions
  • Using open non-verbal behaviour
  • Allowing silences
  • Praising them where possible.

If they are unresponsive to open questions you could use a two-part question:

What would be your approach to the problem?

Answer – I don’t know

Well, would you rebuild the unit, replace it or test it further?

If necessary, you may arrange a follow-up meeting to allow the employee to think of a response. Encourage them to come up with their own alternative answer.

Angry or hostile behaviour

Let the employee have his or her say and express all their feelings. Find out the cause of the negative feelings. It is important to express your concern through reflective statements, such as

  • I can see what you mean
  • I can see this is important to you
  • I want to understand your view
  • I can understand your feelings.

Keep it professional, not personal, and give factual evidence to support your point. Let the person calm down; take a break and resume the discussion when they are calm

Blame shifting and avoidance

  • If someone constantly shifts the blame or strays off the topic
  • Probe and peruse facts
  • Draw them back to the performance in question
  • Use open, non verbal communications
  • Use self review
  • Kindly use a guiding question to get back to the point, for example:

It’s interesting that you enjoyed the conference and now I’d like to get back to our initial discussion on performance objective three...

Emotional outbursts

People can get very wound-up and tense before a review, while others can tend to see even the most well-intended and constructive of comments as criticism. How do you handle an emotional outburst of tears?

  • Encourage the person to express their feelings.
  • Reassure them that they can improve their performance.
  • Highlight their strengths.
  • Allow for silences and give them time to relax.

The person who talks constantly

When someone talks constantly and doesn’t come to the point, you can focus the discussion by saying

Now, to bring us back to...

Can we go back to the point about...

Focusing on...

In addition, you can

  • Use probing questions
  • Ask some closed questions
  • Reflect on key points the person has raised and probe further into them:

You made an interesting point about... suppose we spend some time talking about that?

Let me just summarise what I heard as the main points...

Also see the topics on Appraisals.