Showing respect… it’s about you, not them

You’re talking to someone who pushes your buttons. You see them as a difficult person, because their behaviour seems obnoxious. They’re showing little or no respect for you. So why should you demonstrate respect for them? This is a question which often crops up in my course Dealing with Difficult People. My answer is always the same. You show respect for ‘difficult people’ because being respectful sends a powerful message about who YOU are.

So how do you communicate effectively and respectfully, even when dealing with conflict or handling difficult behaviours? You need to start by getting your intention straight. The intention of respectful communication is to create a psychologically safe space. This builds a relationship in which managing conflict or disagreement becomes easier. You can use the acronym SAFE to help you build psychological safety during workplace communication. SAFE was developed by Eleanor Shakiba and stands for:

  • Start the conversation on a positive note
  • Ask about their perceptions
  • Frame your own perspective
  • Explore options together


Start on a positive note

Even when other people approach in hostile ways, you can keep the conversation positive and stick to effective communication techniques. Acknowledge where the seemingly difficult person is coming from. Then pinpoint the core issue which has triggered their hostility or challenging behaviour. Do this using neutral language. For example, imagine an angry, difficult customer shouting at a customer service officer. The customer is irate because they’ve received faulty goods. Their anger is out of proportion to the issue, so the staff member needs to calm them down. The service officer could start on an assertive, positive note by saying ‘I agree that we need to sort this out. You’re saying the product isn’t working?’

Ask about their perceptions

Step two of SAFE involves letting the other person vent and express themselves. This helps them calm down. Start by asking the other person to explain their point of view. As they speak, acknowledge their key points. For example:

Customer: This is toy not working. Lucky I checked, because it’s a birthday gift for my son. Imagine how disappointed he’d be on Saturday if I gave it to him and didn’t work.

Service officer: Yes, that would be disappointing. I’m sure you want your son to have a great birthday.

Frame your own perspective

Once you’ve explored the other person’s perspective, it’s time to add your own. After all, effective workplace communication is a two way process. To lead the conversation towards expressing your perspective, link your own viewpoint to theirs somehow. Then, with assertiveness and self-respect, explain the boundaries or issues which are important to you. Usually, it is best to speak from the ‘I’ position when doing this. For example, the customer service officer could say ‘I agree we need to sort this out before your son’s birthday. I can replace the faulty product once I’ve checked it. You need the new product by Saturday and today’s Monday. That gives us time to sort things out.’

Explore options

During the final phase of SAFE, invite the other person to work with you in solving the problem. Focus on others as your allies rather than as difficult people. Do this by taking a collaborative approach to problem solving. For example, the customer service officer could say ‘Let’s talk about how you can get the faulty goods back to me quickly, so I can send the replacement.’ Make sure you use collaborative language when doing this, so that the other person feels you’re on their side. This will minimise push-back and help keep the conversation positive.

The four basic steps of SAFE can be used to communicate respect in any difficult situation. If you’d like to find out more about how to build SAFE conversations, sign up for Eleanor Shakiba’s upcoming book Difficult People Made Easy.

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