Three ideas to improve your conversations with difficult people
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
There are very few of us who manage to deliver the results we need in our careers without interacting with other people. However, while interacting with most people is easy, from time to time we come across some who are difficult and unpleasant to deal with. Getting the results we need can then become challenging, and our job satisfaction can be sorely tested.
When we come across these difficult people, it can be easy to think that there’s nothing we can do but just grin and bear it. However, there are some clear steps we can take to more effectively communicate with these people and improve our results. Sometimes, those steps may involve simply recognising that they are not necessarily being difficult and, in actual fact, we might be being a little difficult ourselves.
Idea 1: It’s all in the perspective
One key challenge is the often subconscious assumption that we have all of the required information to assess a situation. By way of example, take a look at the picture below. If I were to ask you what the sculpture in the picture was, I’m pretty confident you would say “It’s a giraffe”. In fact, if I asked you to put your hand on your heart and testify that it was a giraffe, you’d likely be confident doing so. If I were to tell you that it was actually an elephant, you’d probably send me off to the optometrist.
Now, I want to divert your attention for a moment to have a look at this video.
As you will see in the video, things are not so clear. From where the photographer stood, it was very clearly a couple of giraffes. Move around to a different position, and you will see that I was not so crazy when I said it was an elephant. From a changed perspective, things can look vastly different.
When dealing with difficult people, the first tip is to consider whether there may be a different perspective to your own. Recognition of this may not solve the problem at hand, but it may just make the other person seem a little more reasonable and less difficult.
Idea 2: Not everyone is like you
This might seem pretty obvious, but it needs to be said. In the context of difficult people, I’m really talking about people being different in terms of their behavioural preferences. There are many models of psychological or behavioural preferences – DISC, Myers Briggs, Social Styles are just a few. The foundation behind each of them is that we all have innate preferences for how we like to behave in the world. These preferences impact how we interact with others.
In my training workshops, I use the Social Styles model (https://tracom.com/social-style-training/model#:~:text=The%20Four%20SOCIAL%20STYLES%20are%20the%20Driving%20Style%2C,your%20behavior%20and%20make%20that%20person%20more%20comfortable.) This model divides people based on whether they are more assertive or passive and whether they are more emotive or controlled. From these two dimensions, you can start to see if a person fits into one of the four styles: Expressive, Amiable, Analytical or Driver. You can learn more about the model in this video [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRBx8IkV-kQ&feature=emb_logo ].
Take the example of Dan who is a team leader in a marketing agency. His own style is that of ‘Driver’, which sits at the more assertive and less emotive end of the spectrum. His primary motivation is delivering results. Dan is having real trouble working with Monica who heads the operations team. They need to work together to get a team restructure over the line but ultimately, Monica is the one that will decide how it proceeds. Dan is frustrated by Monica’s need to consult on everything. She’s missed several deadlines that he’s set because she’s been waiting to hear back from others. When she responds she’s more concerned with everyone being comfortable with their revised roles than with the cost and efficiency savings to the business.
If Dan were to understand that Monica’s style is Amiable, lower on assertiveness and higher on emotive, he would see that consultation and people being happy is part of her behaviour preferences. Recognising this and setting deadlines which allow a little more time for this may assist in building their relationship and working together more productively. Through this one relatively simple step, a source of tension in the working relationship can be dissolved.
Once again, this may not directly solve the problem at hand but instead provides a little more grease on the wheels to make things proceed more smoothly.
Idea 3: Manage yourself
The truth is that some people just are difficult. You will need to deal with them, but you don’t want dealing with them to derail the rest of your day.
Think about a time where you have had a difficult or frustrating run in with someone at work. Chances are that interaction left you feeling angry or frustrated. I’m guessing that feeling didn’t disappear too quickly (and there’s a neurobiological reason why that feeling hangs about). In fact, you probably took the negativity into your next meeting or carried it with you to your desk, and you were probably not performing at your peak because of this.
Sonja had a manager who regularly used to yell at her and unreasonably criticise her for things that weren’t her responsibility. She tried to avoid him as much as possible but it was difficult to do so. After each interaction, she was left feeling flustered and upset. She’d sometimes head to the bathroom for a little cry or would just sit at her desk staring at the screen for a while. She’d later head home at the end of the day and be grumpy and short-tempered with her husband and children.
I was brought in to assist with the fractured relationship between Sonja and her manager. While part of the process was trying to change the manager’s behaviours, Sonja had no guarantee that he would change. We looked at what she could change to be able to deal with this more productively.
Sonja wanted to come away from the interactions being able to get back to focused work and she certainly didn’t want to take things home with her. She learned that if she wanted to achieve this, she needed a way to negate his influence once she left his office. After working through a few choices, she started a process where, as soon as she left his office, she would take three deep, slow breaths and say to herself, “I wonder what happened to him to make him such an [expletive]. I feel sorry for him, whatever it was.” Through this fairly simple process, she was able to get past the negative feelings much quicker and return to productivity.
As with our other ideas, the problem at hand may remain, and his behaviour definitely needs to be addressed, but a positive step has been taken forwards.
Overall, you can see that there is one strong common theme underpinning all of these points - and that is that there are no quick and easy ways to snap forward to a resolution. Patience, understanding and empathy are all essential when it comes to the ways in which we communicate, and these attributes become even more important as the degree of difficulty in our interactions rises. Above all, the important thing to remember is that while you can’t control someone else, you can control your own responses - and through this, we can engineer smoother, more productive and generally more efficient and enjoyable exchanges with everyone.
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