How to get genuine cooperation from difficult people

I was the agent on duty, and the woman in front of me was livid. She accused the FBI of harassment and invasion of privacy. As the duty agent, it was my responsibility to listen to her claims and determine whether they had merit.

It quickly became evident that she worked for an individual who had been indicted for money laundering and racketeering. So yes, the FBI had interviewed lots of people to get a better idea of who else might be involved. As one of those interviewed, she was determined to battle it out with me and accused the FBI of overstepping its boundaries.

FBI agents are seldom described as warm and fluffy, but neither are they the snarky, shoot-from-the-hip investigators often depicted on TV and in the movies. The reason is simple: Their goal is to calm down a person to the point where they not only see reason, but also agree to cooperate with an FBI investigation.

Sun Tzu wrote in “The Art of War” about how to win battles without a fight. Many of those strategies could also be applied to modern day life.

You may never cross paths with a criminal or engage in warfare. As entrepreneurs, business owners, or leaders, however, you willl encounter difficult clients, customers, and team members from whom you will need cooperation to do your job.

Here is how to get genuine cooperation from difficult people.

1. Remember, our first reaction is to not collaborate

Success in most jobs today requires the ability to develop strong collaborative ties with others. Kare Anderson shares a potent reminder in this quote: “Speak sooner to a strong sweet spot of shared interest to strengthen friendship and generate more opportunities.”

The key word is “sooner,” and here is why: Our emotional limbic brain system is survival-driven. Its sole purpose is to keep us safe, so it warns of us potential threats in our environment. Its first reaction to the unknown or the uninvited that shows up in our life is to run away!

Obviously, not everything that is new or different is a threat to our safety, but the limbic brain system does not know that. Furthermore, it doesn’t differentiate between events and people. In the absence of positive information about an individual you meet, the limbic brain system warns you to distrust that person. This happens subconsciously, before you have time to think about it.

How to make it work for you:

  • Move quickly when you want to get difficult people to cooperate with you so you can alleviate their innate instinct to react negatively.
  • Don’t attack someone else’s idea, as doing so puts them into a fight-or-flight mindset. Remember the advice of Sun Tzu -- break down the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
  • Start off friendly. When you make your point in a friendly manner, you disarm them. It also keeps them from going for a defensive stance or position.
  • Show respect. Make an effort to respect the other person’s point of view, no matter how ridiculous it sounds to you

2. Control facial responses

The way the brain connects and relates to others is through a series of mirror neurons that light up when we see others perform an action that has specific intent behind it. For example, when we see someone smile in delight, our mirror neurons light up, too, and we smile back. Our brain likes to share the emotion of the person in front of us.

This is why facial expressions are so important when we want to get cooperation with difficult people. When we see someone experience an emotion, it activates the same circuits in our brain.

How to make it work for you: Control your facial expressions so you only show a positive response to the other person. Their mirror neurons will register your emotion, and their automatic brain response will not be to move away from you.

Remember, the flight emotional response is always the easiest to arouse, so be careful in what you say and how you say it if you want the other person to cooperate with you.

3. Share personal stories

Another way to activate mirror neurons and deepen connections is to share your personal story. People who have good social connections can plan, think and regulate emotions better than others.

When we tell the stories that have shaped the way we think, those stories can have the same effect on those who hear them. According to Uri Hasson, the brain of the person who tells a story can synchronize with the brain of the person who listens to it. The thinking part of the brain is activated as well as the emotional part of the brain.

This is how we can plant ideas, thoughts and emotions in the brain of the listener. When our stories resonate with another person, our brains become aligned. The fact that we’ve been able to share a common meaning (through the story) makes it easier to communicate on other issues. Hasson’s research further indicates that communication is even more successful if it is a dialogue rather than a one-way stream of information.

How to make it work for you: Your story will have more impact if you can convey how an  incident or decision has influenced your life or goals. Describe a challenge you faced, explain why you made the choice you did, describe the outcome and share a lesson you learned from the experience. Wrap it up and invite the listener in by adding something like, “I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself at a crossroads like this ...”

4. Refuse to let it escalate

In his book "The Political Brain," Drew Westen writes that when people see or hear information that conflicts with their worldview, the parts of the brain that handle reason and logic go dormant. And the parts of the brain that regulate hostile attacks light up.

When an argument starts, logic stops. Therefore, persuasion stops. It devolves into a fight, and that brings another emotion to the situation. At this point, no one cares who is right or wrong, and that is a sure way to fail.

How to make it work for you: Back up your assertions with data. If you want to be taken seriously, use information that has credibility and is backed by research.

You can disarm a potential argument or disagreement by simply saying, “You’re right.” This immediately neutralizes the situation by showing respect for the other person’s point of view, even if it does not coincide with your own. Once the other individual is disarmed, you can follow up with something like, “I see how you feel (or think), but here is another way to look at the situation…”

5. Appeal to higher moral ground

I took the higher moral ground with the irate woman in the FBI interview room. I agreed that it was unpleasant to have the FBI snoop around and ask questions about her. But, once I explained the higher logic of how the FBI had tried to identify accomplices involved in her boss’s racketeering scheme, she agreed that only if we interviewed people “in the know” would law enforcement be able to gather the evidence needed.

I appealed to a higher moral ground when I explained how the FBI followed the rule of the law to protect American citizens. She eventually became an FBI informant!

I have found that mental toughness often has less to do with being tough than with being emotionally savvy about what is going on in the brains of those around me.

How to make it work for you: Try to appeal to worthy motives or universal truths that are hard to dispute. If you can appeal to a "service above self" motive, it provides the listener with an inner satisfaction. Determine if the difficult person is motivated by achievement, affiliation or power. People who are achievement-oriented like to work on concrete tasks where excellence is valued. Those who are affiliation-oriented want to work in groups. Finally, power-motivated people prefer to be in charge and need personal recognition.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.

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Overcome barriers to difficult conversations

People often disagree about what makes a particular kind of conversation difficult. Whether it’s a performance conversation or admitting a mistake, a situation that seems extremely uncomfortable to one person is pretty straightforward to another.

While we may disagree about what specifically makes a conversation difficult to initiate, there are barriers present in every single difficult conversation:

Those barriers are:

  • Fear of the other person’s response
  • Emotional discomfort

Let’s address these two barriers in more depth and then I’ll share some mindsets and an awareness skill to overcome them.

Barrier 1: Fear of the other person’s response

No one likes to have a conversation with someone who is defensive, sensitive or a hot head.

Managers avoid difficult performance conversations because they want to avoid the other person’s anger or defensiveness.

It’s good to remember remember when it comes to avoidance, the fear is rooted in your own mind, made up of your own imagination, not from something that has actually happened. You haven’t even had the conversation, and you are already assuming what they are going to say, and how they are going to feel.

The brain seeks certainty so we humans try to figure out what to expect. And, to be fair, if you already have a history with someone, you probably have a pretty good idea of how they are going to respond. This knowledge can make avoidance seem like a good idea.

If you don’t have a history, it’s the unknown that is unsettling. This leads to our second barrier: Emotional discomfort.

Barrier 2: Emotional discomfort

 Our predictions about how the other person is going to respond causes a lot of mind drama. In other words, it’s not just their reactions you dread, but how you feel based on their reaction.

  • If they cry, you feel guilty.
  • If they get defensive, you get angry.
  • If they try to derail the conversation, you get overwhelmed.

These two barriers often lead to unproductive conversations. Here are three mindsets and one skill to help you overcome barriers.

Difficult conversations

Mindset 1:  The other person is capable

In your mind’s eye, see the person you need to talk to as capable. Don’t see them as an enemy, or as someone who is too sensitive. See that person as strong enough to hear you if you present yourself from the right intention.

Mindset 2: There is a different possibility than the one I’m seeing

Be open to the possibilities. Instead of making up a story about how you think they will respond, leave a little space of unknown to tap into a different possibility. If you can stay present, you might be surprised at how differently even someone with whom you have a history might respond. Give them a chance.

Mindset 3: People are responsible for their own emotional responses

The third skill is to be OK with whatever emotional response other people exhibit. Tell yourself that the feeling they experience belongs to them. Let them take ownership. If they cry, you can pause and hand over a Kleenex. If they get defensive, you can take a breath and ask to continue the conversation later if need be. Their response is OK.

You don’t need to control them; you only need to be in charge of your own emotions.

Skill to practice

Identify all the feelings and emotions that might surface as you envision talking with this person. Become intimately familiar with your own experience to begin to understand and accept other people’s responses. Here’s a list to get you started.

  • Intimidation
  • Embarrassment
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Feeling rejected
  • Overwhelm
  • Distracted
  • Defensiveness
  • Shame
  • Feeling judged
  • Being misunderstood

There’s a good reason we are afraid of our own and of other people’s feelings. Feelings often lead to unproductive behaviors such as lashing out, avoiding, withdrawing or a number of other actions that affect productivity, relationships, self-esteem, leadership and personal effectiveness.

When you see the other person as capable, and you open to a new possibility and you face the emotions without being afraid of them, you lay the foundation for initiating a conversation that helps you get positive results.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of "Stop Workplace Drama" (Wiley 2011), "No-Drama Leadership" (Bibliomotion 2015) and "7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice" (Greenbranch 2018).  Download "The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversations Drive Results." Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at

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Alan Alda and the difference between communicating and communications

I recently attended an event where Alan Alda was interviewed, specifically about his recent book on the “art and science of relating and communicating,” which is based on the work of his Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Alda, unsurprisingly, was sharp, funny and engaging. He also talked relative little about his acting career and more about his work in helping people, particularly scientists, communicate more effectively and with empathy. 

He lived this philosophy during the talk, as he engaged the interviewer with his own questions and actually answered audience questions instead of using them as a springboard to talk about something different. With certain questions, such as from a woman who had done research on helping librarians communicate more effectively, Alda had a question of his own -- the first time I can recall seeing that from a headlining speaker.

(As I was finishing this post today, Alda put his personal theories of communication to the test in announcing, in good humor via Twitter, that he has Parkinson’s.)

But I’m writing about the event now because of a key distinction Alda made in response to a question. The questioner, he said, was asking about how to carry out a communications plan, whereas his book and work was focused on communication.

This distinction can be lost in a busy world where companies, politicians, celebrities and ordinary citizens are always speaking, posting and arguing -- when they aren’t defending or apologizing for something they’ve previously said.

Communication and communications each has its place, but we shouldn’t conflate them. The communication Alda speaks of is how you or I interact with people: how we listen to them, how and what we ask, how we absorb what they say and then how we respond -- and the tone, wording, volume, posture and aggression of those responses.

Communications is tactical, sometimes even strategic, but no communications plan can substitute for the actual communicating.

This post, for instance, is me hoping to communicate with some of you. My writing of a one-pager on the strategy for this leadership blog in 2019 would be communications. My carrying out this hypothetical plan with my co-workers and others would require a lot of communication.

The point here is not that one of these is good and the other is bad. The point is that we are prone to shy away from communicating by passively invoking communications, and we are prone to communicate blindly and screw up when a little communications strategy would have helped. Some common statements that illustrate the misuse of one of the other:

“Let the comms team handle that.”

“We’ve got to get a statement out to show we’re on top of things.”

“We’ve written X down in a handbook.”

“I’m sorry for anyone who was offended by …”

Many companies need a comms team and/or a communications strategy. Saying something as a public-facing person or firm is often better than hiding from whatever the news is. Handbooks have their place, too! But none of these things is an action or a living thing -- we must still speak and write and act, and that's where communications strategies succeed or fail.

For instance, how will you take that handbook and live its values, and help others do the same? If you think the handbook is bad, how will you win the argument and get the backing to change it?

Another case where communications doesn’t translate into good communication is the memo. How often do memos and policy declarations clearly think only of the organization’s most immediate need and not the real-life experiences of the people affected (employees or customers)? How many of these memos introduce new confusion or have unintended -- and often unaddressed -- consequences?

The same problems can be found in our personal communication. How often do we speak or write or type without thinking? How often do we attack with our words instead of taking the time to calm ourselves, to listen, to try and understand and empathize with the other person? What if we had a plan that we could apply as needed?

The good news is that communications and communication can work wonders in tandem. Ever been to an event that goes off smoothly despite a crowd of people, many speakers and caterers and other staff busy throughout? Those people had a communications plan (among other plans) and then communicated well as the event went off. That's just one example.

The short lesson is this: We all need to understand why good communication is necessary and fruitful, understand when good communications is needed and understand the right ways to use each.

Gaining this knowledge and applying it will take practice, trial and error, and study. However, if Alan Alda can be passionate about communication at his age, with all his success, then so can we.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief's leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for distributors, manufacturers and other professions. Before SmartBrief, he was a copy desk chief at a small daily New York newspaper. Contact him @James_daSilva or by email.

Improve your one-on-one meetings with these 5 tips

As leaders, do you hold regular one-on-one meetings with your team members? Many leaders do, but they go about their one-on-ones completely backwards.

Most one-on-ones play out with the leader telling the team member what to do, what they've done wrong and sending them on their way. These meetings are leader-driven and results-focused.

It’s entirely backwards. There’s too much talking and directing by leaders.

The most effective one-on-ones are a conversation about values and results, with the team member talking more, sharing more and asking for help where needed.

This approach makes perfect sense if you believe, like I do, that the purpose of leadership is to engage and inspire talented team members to cooperatively align to shared values and common goals.

Effective leaders see one-on-ones as an opportunity to learn about performance and values traction, and they learn how to serve team members more effectively in the weeks to come.

Watch this crisp, three-minute video to learn how to tweak your one-on-ones and engage and inspire team members.

Subscribe to my free twice-a-month newsletter. Subscribers enjoy free resources including a preview of my Amazon best-seller, "The Culture Engine," which helps team and company leaders create a powerful, purposeful, positive, productive work environment.

And, subscribe to my YouTube channel, where you’ll find more short, crisp, and clear episodes of my "Culture Leadership Charge" video series.

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