While we all want to be easy to work with, we will encounter people who are not. This is a challenge, and it can be demanding when we need to draw on our composure and develop a strategy.
It’s easy for me to sit quietly and write about handling a difficult person, and please know that I realize that my approach is easier said than done.
Maybe this is how we earn our stripes, handling the most challenging situations and people. It’s certainly not a piece of cake. Maybe that’s why we are leaders, as we are willing to be composed and address the situation as best we can to gain the best possible outcome.
Let’s first recognize that people may be difficult because of insecurity, i.e., maybe they are hiding fear that their weakness may be exposed, or demonstrating anger at others when they are really angry at themselves, or maybe they are not comfortable having a conversation with someone whom they feel is superior to them in some regard.
There can be all kinds of reasons that someone is difficult, and let’s accept that it's the hand we’re dealt and create a strategy, instead of throwing up our hands with a “what are we going to do?” attitude.
I believe there are several principles to follow. First, recognize that the answer is not to have an argument. That won’t solve the situation and gain the best outcome.
As difficult as this will be, it will be best to defuse the situation directly, not letting the problem fester. Let’s recognize that our objective is not to be right. Our best approach, is to have a oral conversation, in person if possible, or at least by telephone, definitely not via email.
Our manner will matter. We want to try to understand why the person feels the way she does. It’s best if we can maintain comfortable eye contact and demonstrate our desire be receptive, not to be right, and to understand. And even if the person is dead wrong, we want the person to save face.
Stephen R. Covey says in his wonderful book, The 3rd Alternative, we want to transform the relationship, to sit down with her and say “You see things differently. I need to listen to you.” Then to listen to understand.
Even if the person is difficult, can we change the situation, becomes allies, work for towards a win/win outcome?
Just a few weeks ago, an associate was quite disturbed about her problems with her new boss, who she felt was reneging on important assurances she had given her. She very rightfully did not want to discuss the situation within her office. It was her problem, and she had to handle it with her boss.
Here’s how she approached her problem:
- She did not discuss their problem with anyone in the office
- She realized she must shed her anger, be relaxed and calm or her boss would sense her anger and be defensive or even in an attack mode
- She was committed to a conversation and not an argument or confrontation
- She tried to accept that her boss had reasons for her stance, maybe personal problems or possibly insecurities or even viewing her as a threat
- She focused on a friendly discussion, allowing her boss to save face
- She explained the benefit of the outcome she sought
While my associate knew that she must be prepared to compromise, if necessary, as it turned out, thanks to her preparation and composure, she actually achieved 100% resolution.
Another example of success is a friend, a high level executive, who had a problem employee who repeatedly was causing major issues within his team. There had been lots of effort to get him to see the conflict he was causing. It was time for the person to go, as too much damage was being caused by the person’s attitude. My friend carefully made accurate notes, positive and negative facts about the person, explained the situation with his vice president of human resources, and then prepared himself for the conversation with the employee he would let go. He had his notes, exactly the message he would deliver, he thought about the calm tone of voice he wanted, and even did guided imagery in his mind as to how he wanted the conversation to go.
Not only did that meeting go as wanted, actually, the employee who was terminated wrote my friend a few months later, thanked him for handling the situation so thoughtfully and professionally, and said he is happier in his new field and that he hoped they could remain friends.
The best outcome will never be achieved with an argument or an atmosphere of anger. It’s best to start with an attitude of acceptance of the other party’s feelings, whatever their reasons, and our desire to have a rational conversation, to listen quietly and with interest, and demonstrate respect for the person.
This is when our attitude is so important – having the courage to address directly, keeping composure, listening, being receptive, not discussing with others in the office, and allowing the other person to save face.