Introduction : Working with Difficult People
Do you have difficult people where you work? Most of us do, although we are less likely to admit that our own behavior can be difficult for other people to deal with. If you catch yourself being difficult, it is your responsibility to intervene!
In this lesson,
you’ll learn techniques like blending and redirecting to help keep situations from escalating. We’ll also share an action plan for dealing with conflict.
Working with Difficult People
Conflict occurs when emphasis is placed on the differences between people. The more differences there seem to be, the more divided you become. You get along better with people when the emphasis is on similarities. The difference between conflict with a friend and conflict with a difficult person is that with a friend, the conflict is tempered by things you have in common. Obviously, then, reducing differences is essential to your success in dealing with people you can’t stand.
Here are some key tools for reducing conflict.
Blending is any behavior by which you reduce the differences between you and another person in order to meet them where they are and move to common ground. Blending increases your rapport with others. For example, have you ever been in conversation with someone when you unexpectedly discover that you both grew up in the same place? In that moment of discovery, differences were reduced and you felt closer.
Or you go to a restaurant with a friend, look at the menu, and ask, “What are you having?” Your question may have had little to do with menu choices and a lot to do with sending a signal of friendship.
You blend with people in many ways. You blend visibly with your facial expression, degree of animation, and body posture. You blend verbally with your voice, volume, and speed. And you blend conceptually with your words.
As natural as it is to blend with people you like, or people with whom you share similar objectives, it is equally natural not to blend with people whom you perceive as difficult. The failure to blend has serious consequences, because without blending, the differences between you can become the basis for conflict.
For example, imagine that you and another person are both waiting in line at a busy grocery counter during a holiday rush. You have the sense that both of you think you are next in line. You have two choices. You can choose to ignore the other person and push persistently forward, or you can engage that person in conversation in an attempt to find common ground. Perhaps you are both shopping on your lunch hour, or you are both thinking about what you can cook for a quick dinner. If you can find common ground, you can then reduce the hostility that is building and break the negative cycle.
Saying, “It’s busy in here today, isn’t it?” lets the other person know that you see them. Saying, “I was distracted getting into line: were you here first, or was I?” lets them know that you are uncertain and focuses their response on action instead of both of you standing in line wondering.
Redirecting is any behavior by which you use rapport to change the outcome of your interactions and reach a more satisfactory outcome. Blending always precedes redirecting, whether you are listening to understand or speaking to be understood.
Identify Positive Intent
We can define positive intent as the good purpose meant to be served by a given communication or behavior. Our failure to recognize and appreciate positive intent can have lasting consequences.
A powerful key to bringing out the best in people at their worst is to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume a positive intent behind their problem behavior. Since your difficult person may be unaware of this, ask yourself what real purpose might be behind a person’s communication or behavior and acknowledge it. For example, someone may be upset because they have not received the service they required. They may be difficult toward you and make personal remarks, but the positive intent behind their words is that they don’t want special treatment, nor do they necessarily mean ill toward you. They just want to get what they asked for.
If you are not sure about that positive intent, be creative and make something up that could be true. Even if the intent you ascribe to the behavior isn’t true, it will allow you to blend and develop rapport.
Identify Highly Valued Criteria
Criteria are the standards by which we measure whether ideas are good or not, the means for determining what a thing should be, and the benchmark by which people gauge whether they are for or against an idea. Criteria become especially important when differing ideas or points of view are being discussed.
Money, bonding, teamwork, or increasing knowledge are some of the things that may be important to us.
Whenever a discussion starts to degenerate into conflict, try to ascertain the reasons why people are for or against something. Then look for an idea or solution to the problem that blends these criteria together. That is another way to turn conflict into cooperation.
When Discussions Degenerate Into Conflict
When your problem person is talking:
- Blending visibly and audibly
- Backtracking or echoing some of their own words
- Clarifying their meaning, intent, and criteria
- Summarizing what you’ve heard
- Confirming to find out if you got it right
While blending is an important skill to use when dealing with others, never blend with a hostile gesture directed at you. Don’t meet aggression with aggression. If the other person raises their voice or shakes their fist, the key to blending is to underplay it assertively.
Your action plan for angry, aggressive people should include:
- Hold your ground and use deep breathing to stay calm.
- Interrupt the attack by repeating their name several times.
- Quickly backtrack or echo their main point to show them you have been respectfully listening.
- Aim for the bottom line by taking ownership and expressing the situation from your point of view.
Some more important points to keep in mind when you are dealing with difficult people:
- No one cooperates with anyone who seems to be against them. In human relations there is no middle ground. Unconsciously people want to know, “Are you with me or against me?” That’s one of the things you have in common with your difficult people.
- Express your truth in a way that builds someone up rather than tears them down.
- Use “I” language, because “you” statements can be accusatory.
- Be specific about the problem behavior.
- Show them how their behavior is self-defeating.
- Suggest new behaviors or options.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to being honest with someone is concern about hurting their feelings. But you do no one a favor by withholding information and allowing them to continue behaviors that don’t work for them either.