When I ask people what their biggest challenges at work are, “dealing with difficult people” is usually in the top 5. And when I ask for further explanation or examples, I hear things like “unreasonable,” “always has to be right,” “won’t listen.”
What is the best way to handle these situations? With deliberate intention. That means you have to avoid reacting or over-reacting, and be thoughtful about your interaction. Here are some steps to think through as you prepare yourself that will make the process more productive:
- Determine what you want. What is the ideal outcome or result you are trying to achieve? In other words, begin with the end in mind. The more clarity you can bring to this, the better.
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. What does she want? Why is she unreasonable? What are her frustrations? And what is at stake? Sometimes, when we look at the situation from the other person’s point of view, we realize they may be equally unhappy with the status quo. Try to be empathetic.
- Decide to seek a win / win. How can you resolve the issue in such a way that you both get what you want or something better? Think creatively about possible solutions or options. Do a little research or brainstorming to think through alternate routes to your ideal outcome.
- Approach the person and the situation with an open mind and an open heart. Even as you have your ideal outcome in focus, realize that there may be other solutions that you cannot see from where you sit. There may also be more to the situation than you can see.
- Know that it may take more than one try. If this person is important to your ability to progress or to be successful, don’t give up on your efforts to get through to her just because she’s difficult. If there is someone who has a more effective relationship, ask for help. That person may have some insight that will bring you more understanding. Plus, if you keep following this pattern consistently—and learn from it each time—you will eventually break through.
- Manage your tone and body language. When you do have a conversation, be aware of not only the words you use, but also the tone of your voice and what your facial expression is conveying. If you have cultivated an open mind and an open heart, this is easier.
- State your intention up front. When you begin what may be a difficult interaction, take a minute to “position” the conversation up front by stating your intent, what you want to achieve and any concerns you have about keeping the conversation positive, productive and respectful of the other person’s needs and wants. Once you do this, you can always refer back to your statement of intent if the conversation gets off track.
Dealing with difficult people can certainly be a challenge that makes the workplace less productive and less enjoyable; learning to be more effective in your interactions can make a big difference to you and the people around you.
As I always say, “if you’re paying attention, each and every experience you have contributes to who you become as a leader.” Even if you fail at building the relationship with that difficult person, making the effort means you are taking the high road. Learning what works – and what doesn’t work – makes you a better leader in the long run.
I’d love to hear about your experience with difficult people and what you have found works best. Please leave a comment!
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