Defusing Difficult Encounters

Common-sense pointers, tools and verbal tips
to help you hose-down hostile moments

Defusing Difficult Encounters

As you probably know from experience, not every situation turns out the way you’d like. Things quite unexpectedly turn ugly in seconds. Even if you can’t settle them, resolve the issue constructively or fend off abuse, you can at least work at staying emotionally balanced and calm, try not lose it yourself, and avoid saying or doing anything to escalate their emotions or inflame the situation further.

About this Program...

Whether it’s a hostile parent, irate customer, worrisome workmate, disruptive students, agitated teacher or the like, navigating touchy situations where conversations get combative, and where one or both of us get defensive, argumentative, hostile or aggressive, are often a part of everyday life we have to face up to, no matter how much we wish they weren’t.

We all know what a difficult encounter feels like. They come in a variety of shapes, but it’s any touchy topic or sticky situation where either of us gets heated, hostile, belligerent or abusive.

We agonise over them, weighing up what we might have said differently to get a better result. And sometimes, they can land us in hot water because our encounter got complained about – whether we think we handled it well enough, or poorly, is often beside the point​.

Purpose and Profile:

Belligerent or combative encounters, where one (or both of us) get defensive, argumentative, hostile or aggressive – arise in many different contexts and they affect different people in different ways. 

Our 1-day program on Defusing Difficult Encounters is a bit like first-aid for difficult situations. It aims to help you and your colleagues:

Whether it’s you, a work colleague or a parent, the reasons behind hostile or aggressive behaviour are numerous, and can often be very deep and complex.

Regardless of the reasons for the behaviour of the person you now face, your role is to find out what they want and see what you can do to defuse this difficult situation, restore safety, settle escalated emotions and reset the conversation on a more constructive course so the person you turn the conversation over to, can make rational headway on whatever it is that needs resolving (which will not be up to you).

Defusing Difficult Encounters - what we cover

Difficult encounters are by nature unpredictable. While there are no set formulas or quick fixes guaranteed to work every time, this course covers some common-sense tools and techniques that we hope can help you defuse and handle them, more calmly, confidently and constructively. 

This program doesn’t try to be the last word on this, and you no doubt know other strategies than what we cover, but some of the topics we touch on include…

Defusing Difficult Encounters

A note to keep in mind...

While we will be looking at situations that are confronting, offensive, provocative, threatening or hostile, we won’t be dealing with encounters that go from difficult to dangerous. If things get ugly, violence is threatened, dangerous acts occur or are imminent, or you feel personally at risk, get straight out of harm’s way and seek assistance. Most organisations have procedures to follow in these extreme circumstances and we recommend that you be aware of what these are and how they apply in your workplace.

What People Say...

More Themes for Learning

Is this course for you?

This program deals specifically with difficult encounters where conversations with particular people turn hostile. If you’re looking to develop difficult conversations skills to apply in a broader range of contexts, take a look at our long-running Dealing with Difficult Discussions program for leaders and Tackling Tough Talks clinic for teams. For handling conversations about performance, our Positive Performance Conversations clinic is ideal. To become more conversationally aware in general, we recommend our Constructive Conversations Clinic.

Defusing Difficult Encounters Pocket Guide


Take-away handy-sized pocket guide full of tools and actions you can tap into to build on what we cover in this session…

More about Conversations...

The Change Forum offers a number of learning programs to help leaders and teams improve their Conversational Mastery, including handling difficult conversations better. Follow the category link above. We also provide a number of free FactFiles, Articles, Newsletters and other resources to subscribers to our membership site. Subscribe Today to enjoy the full range of resources we offer.

Upcoming Courses & Events

See our online Course Calendar for where and when this program is next available publicly; as well as other Change Forum programs on offer in your area. If you’d like to arrange an In-House event tailored to suit your needs, get in touch below.

Start a conversation with us!
Contact Bill Cropper on

(+61) 07-4068 7591

(+61) 0429 687 513

(+61) 0429 687 591

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High Tension Encounters

High Tension Encounters (HTEs) happen regularly in any workplace  offices, schools, hospitals, councils, work-sites, factories… 

The negative impact of poorly-handled HTEs on colleagues, customers, patients and work-teams is well-attested. Whether it’s toxic personalities, inveterate arguers, belligerent bosses or conflict-ridden contrarians, HTE’s distract from productive work focus, detract from good results, debilitate teams, distress and unsettle us, and create caustic cultures in the long term…

  • The frequency of HTEs has been measured in several settings. For example, one study found 85% of us experienced chronic conflict in our work-lives, with 30% saying it was always or highly frequent. 
  • In schools, principals on average say they have five difficult encounters a day, while another study of operating theatres reported at least 1 and up to 4 HTEs among surgical teams per operation. 
  • Another study reported 64% said they were dealing with a toxic personality in their current work environment and 94% said they’d worked with someone toxic at some time. 
  • Other studies reveal that school principals are abused on a regular basis by parents and 91% of nurses reported verbal abuse from physicians or patients, with 10% saying they witnessed disruptive physician behaviour daily. 
  • The ongoing impact of these HTEs exact a significant emotional toll, with one study suggesting negative encounters affected people five times more strongly than positive ones.

The customary line is that conflict is beneficial – it clarifies, corrects, changes and leads to better solutions and decisions.

Yet another line of thought suggests something quite different: that it has prolonged negative consequences that undermine relationships, trust and collaboration as well as distracting from task-focus and wasting resources in prolonged conflict mediation processes that largely don’t work.… 

So, whether or not it is sporadically constructive, in many instances conflict it seems is damaging, harmful and linked to high stress and staff turnover. 

Building conversational capability to better deal with difficult HTEs may not reduce their frequency but it can help us to handle them better, have more constructive confrontations and mitigate some of the negative consequences that follow on the heels of unregulated conflict.

© Bill Cropper – The Change Forum 2023

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