Difficult people sometimes feel like an obstacle course on the path to what we want: a smooth career trajectory, harmonious family relations, good times with friends. From time to time you’ll run into people with an agenda, people who aren’t paying attention (yet act on their convictions), and people who just seem to want to make it hard for you. This could be an oppressive boss, a friend of a friend who isn’t quite so friendly with you, or a customer service rep who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “service.”
As the sports saying goes, you can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them. And while their tactics define them, how you handle them defines you. What is leadership, if not the ability to defuse difficult interactions and bring them to resolution?
Don’t Take It Personally
Understand that most difficult interactions aren’t because of a specific thing you’ve done—often even if that’s the stated cause of the problem. Most difficult people find reasons to be difficult. Don’t let embarrassment, defensiveness or anger escalate the situation. Don’t let it (or them) get to you. Instead, step outside of your feelings for a moment, so you can perform the next mental steps.
Back before most support was outsourced, I held a job as a software technical support rep. I would regularly answer a call to find a user angry, blaming “your product” for their problems, and suggesting we do anatomically challenging things with the packaging. I understood it had nothing to do with me or often even the product—they were frustrated because they couldn’t do what they thought they could do, losing time and sometimes money. Usually I could get these people back on track in minutes, at which time they would thank me profusely. It got to the point that when I’d hear an angry caller I was excited for the challenge.
Make Sure It Isn’t You
The first step to solving a difficult interaction is to make sure you’re not being difficult yourself.
This is huge. Most guys aren’t self-aware enough to consider the problem might be at least partly due to their own pride or thought processes. Be the guy who considers it. This takes a little critical thinking, but if you’ve read much of this blog, you’re up to the task.
Even if the difficult person is honestly being a jerk, is he pointing out something that maybe hurts because it’s true? Or is he playing on a personality flaw you need to address? Make a mental note so that you can work on any issues later. Again, try to put your feelings aside…at least for the moment.
Understand the Problem
One of Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” You can’t solve a problem until you understand the nature of the problem. Often the difficulty is one of communication.
Does your manager think in linear terms, meaning it’s up to you to let him know early on if a problem is anticipated that could delay a project? Or does he “micromanage” because his trust has been broken by another team member?
If a service rep is having a hard time helping you solve an issue, are you stating the problem accurately, and can you offer a clear and achievable resolution? Does this person actually have the authority to help? You may need to speak (politely) to a manager or even a completely different company to receive satisfaction.
If the problem is definitely a result of the other person’s behavior, try to attempt to address it directly. However, remember that although your first instinct is to give as good as you get, it rarely solves anything unless you’re also able to win the ensuing fistfight.
Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg has championed the practice of Non-Violent Communication to solve the dual problems of honestly expressing a conflict while also taking into account the other person’s ego.
This practice is simple:
- First make an observation (“I always hear you making jokes about my coding skills”).
- Then state your feelings (“After I work hard on a project, I feel like my work isn’t respected”).
- Now state what you need (“I need a supportive environment at work”).
- Finish with a request (“Can we agree to solve any coding issues by helping each other instead?”).
The goal is to make the other person aware of the consequences of their actions, and in the end have him agree to an action that’s helpful instead of problematic. It may be difficult at first, especially when you’re called upon to state your feelings, but you may find it knocks the difficult person for a loop, which in itself should offer some manly satisfaction.
Pull Out the Big Guns
Some people, however, just won’t stop their difficult behavior for whatever reason. Workplace antagonists or relatives whose behavior has gone on for years or decades may not succumb to reason. In these cases, the best answer is simply to cut them out of your life. Start looking for a new job. Don’t attend family functions where the relative is present.
If you can’t cut a difficult person out completely, work with others to minimize or neutralize the problem. Consult with co-workers or other family members. Bring up the impact on productivity with a manager. If that sales clerk really is the clerk from hell, ask to speak with a manager (remembering to use Non-violent Communication with the manager—after all, he isn’t the problem).
- Start with polite confrontation.
- If a bully keeps spewing venom at you, limit your contact with the creep as much as possible.
- Find ways to enjoy “small wins.” (Note: this refers only to direct consequences to their inappropriate actions, and not “getting back at them.”)
- Practice indifference and emotional detachment.
- Carefully document what the jerk does and when it happens.
- Recruit fellow victims and witnesses.
- Take legal action if you must, but do so as a last resort.
Most of the above steps could certainly apply in other areas of life as well, especially number 4…
Stay Above It
Most of all, remain calm, cool and collected. Let a ranter rant, let a joker joke—if they can’t get a rise out of you they may very well stop. Don’t answer with sarcasm or a witty rejoinder (if you have a problem refraining from the latter, just understand that it usually turns out no better than George Costanza’s “the jerk store called, they’re running out of you”). Just keep working, or discussing what you were discussing, or going where you were going.
If the difficulty is a problem you and the difficult person must solve, keep your mind working on potential solutions, and avoid confrontation over what’s not being done. Acknowledge when a problem might be tough. Look for another way to reach your clear and achievable goal.
Remember that a difficult interaction is a small speck in your life. Save your emotional energy for the important stuff, and you’ll be fine.