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Coping with Difficult People

Four steps to help cope
October 2009
Coping with Difficult People
My notes this month are about the challenge we face dealing with "difficult people".  These people impact severely on our workplace performance.  They can be peers, reports or our managers and have a huge influence on our motivation, engagement and health.

Here are four steps to cope with difficult people that some of my clients have found helpful.

These actions are challenging and difficult but may be of assistance if you or your colleagues have to face this situation.

A special thanks to those of you who have commented on the previous newsletters.  I really value your feedback and comments. 

If you have issues or ideas you would like included in a future newsletter please let me know.
Kind regards,

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Susan's 2009 Photo

How much time do you spend coping with 'difficult people'?  How do you identify a truly 'difficult person'?  And more importantly, what can you do about it? 
We can all think of times when a co-worker turns grumpy and uncommunicative, your boss blows his stack over a minor mistake, or subordinates have constant excuses for why work is delayed.   These are not usually 'difficult people' but are instead the result of a situation temporarily bringing out the worst in them.
Truly 'difficult people' show chronic behaviour issues.  
To identify the truly 'difficult people' ask: 
  • Has the person in question usually acted differently in three similar situations?
  • Am I reacting out of proportion to what the situation warrants?
  • Was there a particular incident that triggered the troublesome behaviour?
  • Will direct, open discussion relieve the situation?
(if you answer 'yes' to any of these, then chances are you are not dealing with a 'difficult person'.  If your answers are all 'no', then chances are you do have a 'difficult person' on your hands)
So how do you deal with that truly 'difficult person'?  Richard Bramson (Coping with Difficult Business and in Life) has suggested four steps:
The first step is to stop wishing they were different.  This is far easier said than done.  We often think it is up to them to change, wish for them to change, and feel frustrated when they don't.   But wishing they were different is an exercise in futility.  So the first step is to give up that magic wish!  Blaming people for being difficult won't change them.  But giving up the energy you use in wishing they would change will help you.
The second step is to get some distance between you and the difficult behaviour.  We often get so wrapped up in situations, feeling angry at them, feeling upset at ourselves, that we are unable to respond effectively.   Your goal in this step is to have a detached and distanced view of that Difficult Person while they're in the process of being difficult. Just like looking through a telescope.  Sometimes being able to label the behaviour helps. Bramson describes seven types of 'difficult people':
  1. Hostile-aggressives: those who bully and throw tantrums to get their way.
  2. Complainers: those who gripe incessantly but do nothing to change things.
  3. Super-Agreeables: those who are supportive and agreeable but fail to follow through.
  4. Silent and Unresponsives: those who respond to every question with yep, no, or a grunt.
  5. Negativists: those who deflate any optimism you have.
  6. Know-It-All Experts: those who know everything about anything worth knowing and their goal is to make you feel worthless.
  7. Indecisives: those who stall major decisions until they are made for them, often causing loss of jobs and opportunities.
Human beings are immensely complex and no-one can be reduced to just one label.  However, if categorising helps you to get some distance and see the behaviour is not just how they relate to you but is how they relate to many people, it can give you some perspective and breathing space.  Then you can try and imagine what life looks like to that person - how do they view the world?  When you can make some sense out of their behaviour you feel less confused, more able to cope and more able to move to Step three.
Step three is changing the nature of the interaction you are involved in.   You need to see how to change your own behaviour to modify the interaction and the outcome.  For example, 'super-agreeables' are those people who promise you anything because they want to keep you happy.   Reality can be distorted.  They can over-promise and under-deliver.  They want to be liked and this means never saying 'no' or giving a candid response.  If you insist on honesty it will drive them into a panic and result in more of the same 'over-promising' behaviours.  Instead, it's better to change the situation to make it easier for the truth to emerge.  This means making honesty non-threatening and subtly reassuring them that they are still liked. 
The final step is implementing and monitoring your strategy.  Thinking about when you do it, selecting the right time (for them and you) realising how much energy you have to put into it (it's likely to take more than one go to get this right), practicing how you would handle it (anticipating the responses which can sometimes be very uncomfortable) and then finally monitoring the impact and modifying. 
It's also possible that no matter what you do your attempts at coping will fail to produce the results you want.  If your attempts at coping don't work then maybe it's time to literally get as much distance from the 'Difficult Person' as possible.  No-one is under a moral obligation to keep working with another person whose behaviour is demoralising, severely upsetting or stress-producing.  On the other hand, there are some situations you know you are unable to walk away from and learning how to cope with (not manage) difficult people may be both useful and necessary.

You are welcome to click here to forward this article to a colleague who may find it useful, Thanks, Susan