How to Deal with Difficult People: Fight, Flight or Focus?

Common sense dictates that if we can control our emotions when confronted with a difficult situation, we will achieve better results. We have all seen how police officers are trained to remain calm in the face of angry, belligerent suspects. We admire the basketball player who coolly sinks the winning free throws while the student section does its best to distract him. We can’t help but be impressed by the courage of our military in the face of life-threatening danger. When considering the pressure and danger associated with these examples, it seems silly as a sales professional to feel fear when confronted with a difficult customer.

Fight or Flight?

We are all hard-wired to flee from danger. Our “flight” response automatically kicks in when we are faced with life-threatening danger. A less dramatic (yet debilitating) flight response is also common when faced with uncertainty or adversity in business. Many of our clients report that flight is a viable option when we face lesser threats such as rejection. This has been hammered into our psyche as salespeople when we are reminded that it takes several “no’s” before we gain a “yes” and that it is better to live to come back another day than to push the battle too far today. Unfortunately, every time we exercise the flight option, we leave the door open for the “real” threat – competition – to walk in and make our situation worse.

The other option that is commonly considered in the face of adversity is to fight. If we choose to “stand and fight” for our business with a difficult customer, we go into battle mode. We take strong positions, become defensive and generally escalate the bad situation instead of neutralizing it. The fight response is very difficult to control because it is so reflexive. Your ego and self-esteem have been challenged, and many of us struggle mightily to suppress the natural urge to defend ourselves, our product and our company.

If we know we will get better results with a calm response in the face of adversity, why is it so difficult to control our emotions when we are fearful in a business setting? Composure is hard to attain and maintain in the face of pressure to win deals, the stress of meeting quotas and the anxiety of maintaining enough margin to drive profits. It is even harder when these feelings are amplified by an angry, unpleasant and intimidating customer.

When you feel the strain of a difficult situation, you make two quick judgments. First, you must feel personally threatened by the situation, and you have some doubt that your capabilities and resources are sufficient to meet the threat. This sense of threat is rarely physical. It may, for example, involve perceived threats to your social or professional standing, to other people’s opinions of you, to your career prospects or to your own deeply held values. In any event, none of these are life-threatening (they just feel that way in the moment.) Just as with real threats to our survival, these perceived threats trigger the hormonal fight-or-flight response, with all of its negative consequences.


The third option is to focus. Many sales professionals approach their most difficult customers with gritted teeth and a firm resolve to “win.” They go into the negotiation fully prepared to have a miserable, drawn out experience. To effectively neutralize your emotions, you have to consciously focus on the issues on the table. Have a well planned strategy. Define in advance what you want to achieve, and then stick to it and refuse to be sucked into distractions. Focus on what you can control, and adjust your psychology to overcome the emotional responses that are trying to break out and derail your sales effort. You can control your psychology by preparing yourself with positive empowering beliefs ahead of time.

Instead of going into negotiations with a sense of dread, prepare by focusing on positive, empowering affirmations well in advance of the actual conversation. Examples of positive beliefs include:

  • When you are worried about the quality of your presentation: “I am a well-trained professional with a lot of experience. I have prepared well to grow this account and I have rehearsed thoroughly. I am well prepared to give an excellent presentation.”
  • When there are distractions and issues outside your control: “I have thought through everything that might reasonably happen and have planned how I can handle all likely contingencies. I am well placed to react flexibly to events.”
  • When you are concerned about a reaction to your offer: “Fair customers will react well to a fair proposalgood performance. I will rise above any unfair criticism in a mature and professional way.”
  • When you uncovered problems during preparation: “I have experimented with strategies and learned from my preparation. I am ready to ask the right questions to create a level playing field.”

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