How to Deal with Conflict and Cranky People

Funny Female Motivational Speaker Presenting on LeadershipLet’s face it - some people’s mood swings can gnaw at your sanity. Crankiness is infectious - it can spread through an office as silently and pervasively as a virus.
Most people will do anything to escape the cranky person’s subtle harassment and frequent emotional outbursts. Another’s foul mood can become your liability, draining the joy out of the job.
These unhappy individuals can deteriorate group morale, lower productivity, and scare away clients.

As a keynote motivational speaker one of my most popular speaking topics is, I Love My Job, it's the People I Can't Stand.

Unbelievably, many prickly people have no idea of their toxic attitudes. Their outbursts help them get what they want and it's come to the point where they don’t even realize they are doing it. As psychologists suggest, knowing is half the battle because you can’t change what you don’t know and you can’t see.

I did a conflict management workshop, where one leader got into a huge fight with one his employees in front of everyone. After shouting for five minutes, he still couldn't figure out why he needed to take this seminar.

How do you help cranky people to "fess up" to their mood swings? Can you hold up a mirror so they can see the villain inside? The reason difficult people are difficult is - we let them get away with it.

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Names Will Never Hurt Me

Remember, nobody can ruin your day, unless you give him or her permission.  Only you, ultimately, control the way you respond to situations and people. This is very powerful, as you are the only one who determines your mood and your responses. The next time someone loses it, and tries to take it out on you, before you get upset or take on the blame, remember that you have a choice.

Do you let this person upset you or not? Most things don’t warrant your attention. If you work with someone who habitually flies off the handle, you will have to learn to fight back, without the fight.


  • Diffuse hostility by relating to the other’s point of view.
  • Anger is not productive and the sooner you can calm the culprit down the better. Use statements like, “I can appreciate what you’re saying” or “I’ve felt that way, too” or “That’s what I thought for awhile” or “While that may be true…” Once you’ve calmed the other person down, you can discuss the situation on a more reasonable level. If you can win them over, they will start to see you as an ally and trust your opinion. This is how you can gain the power to influence their future behavior.
  • Stay calm. Going straight for the throat is the worst thing you can do because people tend to mimic your behavior. If you get angry, they get angrier, the anger escalates, and you have just helped to fuel their behavior. When under fire in such a situation, use deep breathing, positive affirmations (e.g. “I will remain calm,“ or ”I can handle this”), and focus on the resolution.
  • Back out gracefully. We are all human. If someone is on the attack and you’re not in the mood or a position to defend yourself, try diffusing the attacker and back out gracefully. “I can see you are upset, and we need to discuss this, but now is not the time. Let’s talk about it later.” It is far better to come back to that person after a time out, when you are both better able to discuss the situation.
  • Use good body language. In situations of conflict, body language betrays your frustration and anger. Indicate you are listening by making eye contact, nodding, smiling, leaning forward, and paraphrasing what you hear. One of the best leadership skills is great body language.
  • Verbally move the “complaint” along. Some people need to complain, so let them. Most people will get it out and move on while others may see this as an opportunity to drag someone else through the mud. The best way to stop the complaints is to move it along. “OK, yes, alright… I hear you...” Once you get the gist of the argument, quickly reiterate their concern and move onto the solution. You don’t have to be a victim of others’ complaining you are trying to find resolution. Motivating people to stay positive takes time.
  • Listen for words and emotions. When people are emotionally charged, they color their words with their attitudes. It is important to stay focused. What are they getting at and what does this mean to you? It helps to be straightforward and ask, “What are you trying to tell me?” Try to understand their basic needs and respond to them. Your responses may not solve their deeper life issues but they will set a positive tone in your relationship.
  • Be solutions-oriented and not problem-focused. Leadership Experts agree behavior that gets recognized gets repeated, good or bad. If you spend too much time wallowing in the problem it may just grow. Understand the situation and sum up the problem, then immediately focus on the solution.
  • Use the “How can I help?” approach. “You seemed annoyed and withdrawn at the meeting when we really needed your input. What’s wrong? How can I help?” Most frustrated employees really want to talk about the situation so they can move on.
  • Never blame. When someone is upset, placing the blame back on him or her is dangerous. They are not in a position to recognize their faults. Avoid phrases such as: “You should have, you didn’t, you can’t…” These accusatory statements will only put others on the defensive and no resolution will be reached.


  1. Diffuse the anger by relating to the problem. “I notice you seemed irritated by my patient and I can understand. Sometimes she is hard to deal with.”
  2. Talk about what you saw. “I saw you get really upset with Ms. Jones because she wouldn’t take her medication.”
  3. Ask for what you want. “The next time this happens, can you just politely explain why the medication is important and assist her in taking it?”
  4. Wait for agreement.
  5. Sit down if possible when delivering criticism. Arguments tend to escalate when people are standing.

Imagine this. A frustrated employee tries to provoke a co-worker. It works; he’s mad, but instead of flaring up as usual, he stops and realizes he’s angry, reflects on the reason and responds with an honest expression of his emotion. He says, “I want to understand what you’re saying and I’m feeling frustrated that we can’t come to terms with this. I don’t dislike your idea; I’m just finding it hard to concentrate because we are both so emotionally charged.” There is nothing more disarming than an honest and clear expression of emotion.

Honesty disarms crankiness.

Humor in the workplace, used appropriately will inspire people to decrease tension and stay positive.

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