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Dealing with Difficult Behavior

Leaders in local government sometimes deal with persons exhibiting difficult behavior. I try not to call these persons “difficult people” because it is important to focus on the behavior instead of labeling someone as “difficult.” This blog provides suggestions and tools for dealing with difficult behavior and is based on skills presented during our recent conflict resolution webinar series.

Presence and Curiosity

It is important to actively listen and be present for communications with others, including colleagues, elected officials, staff, customers, and members of the public. Especially in difficult interactions, it helps to listen as carefully as you are able and to provide enough time to understand what is being shared. Keep an open mind and use curiosity to learn more. Try to approach a difficult situation with optimism and compassion. Acknowledge difficult feelings like frustration, fear, and distrust. Taking a moment and slowing the communication process down is one way to avoid misunderstanding, conflict, and possible impasse. 

Intent and Impact

Intent is what a person wants or means to have happen and impact is the reality of a person’s actions. Intent is what one has in mind as a goal. It is my intention and reflects what type of impact I want to have with my words or actions. However, the reality of my actions is not based on my intent. The reality is the impact or results of my actions on other persons. Conflict may arise when one’s intent is different and not aligned with the impact.

Although intentions might be good, the impacts of our actions and words may not be so good. Sometimes the impact of an action or a statement can be the opposite of what we intend. In other words, my words or my actions do not always land well. Awareness of the differences — at times dramatic differences — between intent and impact helps us seek understanding and feedback about the impacts we have on others. Because impact is the reality, we want to understand and change our words and actions to have an effective and positive impact on others. When the impact has been negative, and one understands why this has happened, then there are opportunities to change behavior and align our subjective intent with the reality of impact.

When dealing with persons who are behaving in a difficult way, it may help to share more about the impacts of their behavior and also to understand the impacts of our responses to difficult situations. 

BIFF Approach

The BIFF approach is an acronym to aid in interactions with others, especially in high conflict situations. Developed by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., BIFF is the foundation for training provided at

BIFF stands for being:

  • Brief
  • Informative
  • Firm
  • Friendly

The BIFF approach in high conflict, difficult situations is useful, especially when frustrations or anger may be escalating. Thinking about and using the BIFF steps help with calm and clear communications. This tool is useful in many situations, especially in public meetings.


The SCARF model was created by Dr. David Rock. Dr. Rock is author of the book Your Brain at Work, which focuses on the five elements of human motivation as based on brain science. SCARF stands for:

  • Status: one’s feeling of relative importance to others such as in a social situation
  • Certainty: one’s ability to predict the future
  • Autonomy: how much control over events we perceive that we have
  • Relatedness: how safe we feel with others
  • Fairness: how fair we perceive exchanges to be between persons

Consideration of each of these elements can help us better understand our own motivations and those of persons with which we interact. This tool allows us to consider how others are approaching a situation. Thinking about our own motivations and those of others can improve how we respond.


Strong communications skills are important in many situations, interactions, and group processes. Whether the stakes are high or low, it is helpful to have more tools to deal with persons when they behave in ways some find difficult. Sometimes a person being difficult becomes easier to work with when they feel they are being understood. Try the BIFF and SCARF models. Consider both the intent and impact of communications to help strengthen relationships with your coworkers and with the public.

MRSC has many resources about conflict resolution, communications, and public engagement, including these two topic pages:

MRSC On-Demand Webinars also has the titles below under the Leadership category:

  • Conflict Resolution Skills for Local Government
  • Process Matters: Rethinking Public Engagement

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Linda Gallagher

About Linda Gallagher

Linda Gallagher joined MRSC in 2017. She previously served as a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County and as an Assistant Attorney General.

Linda’s municipal law experience includes risk management, torts, civil rights, transit, employment, workers compensation, eminent domain, vehicle licensing, law enforcement, corrections, and public health.

She graduated from the University of Washington School of Law.