How do you deal with challenging and sometimes difficult people? It can be a true test of our own humanity, our personal and professional relationships, our skills and our boundaries. And many of us would rather not deal with them at all, backing off from uncomfortable — but necessary — conversations in hopes that they will just go away.
Fortunately, handling difficult people at work or elsewhere in our lives is something that can be learned and — with practice — perfected. These tips, learned through MHIGlobal training, will help you get started.
Dealing with difficult people
- Focus on the situation, issue or behavior, not the person. Don’t let yourself get sucked in to name-calling, blaming or emotional reactions. And your reaction is your own, not something someone “made” you do or feel.
Remember to use “I” statements: “When you said this, I felt ____” rather than “You make me so mad!” There is no judgment in the first statement, but an acknowledgement of your own feelings; there is a risk to admitting that, but it’s well worth taking.
Don’t let your ego get in the way of your “I” statement, which could trick you into saying “When you said this, I felt like you made me feel like an idiot.” This is a blaming statement, not an acknowledgement of how you feel.
Here’s a hint: If you use the words “like” or “that” after “I feel ____,” you’re not expressing an emotion but a judgment. You feel happy, sad, angry, jealous and so on — not “I feel like I’m jealous” or “I feel that you’re crazy.”
- Maintain the self-confidence and self-esteem of others. This is closely related to the first. Just because someone has done something stupid does not make them stupid.
Say something like this: “You told me you would do the dishes after dinner and you haven’t done it yet. What’s going on?” Or “Last week you said the report would be finished today. It’s now the end of the day and I don’t have it. What happened?”
Both these statements not only allow people to retain their own dignity, but it allows for open (and hopefully honest) communication. This is always a good thing. You may learn things that you would never find out if you went on the offensive.
- Maintain constructive relationships. This falls under the “don’t burn your bridges” category. Presumably, you have some type of relationship with these difficult people that you want to — or must — maintain.
What is “constructive”? I have come to believe that there is no such thing as “constructive criticism.” To me, criticism is always destructive. Maybe I’m just in spin-doctor mode, but I prefer the term “constructive feedback.” There is a lot less heat in the word “feedback” than in “criticism,” which allows a proper emotional distance, both for the person offering the feedback and the one hearing it.
- Take initiative to make things better. This is the natural outgrowth of the points made earlier, and it shows that you really do care about the outcome of whatever disagreement or difficulty you find yourself in with others.
Simply ask, “What can I do to help improve this situation?” Or “What would make this easier/better/faster for you to accomplish?” Again, you put yourself in the position of learning something new.
- Lead by example. If you want people to work hard, you need to work hard. If you want people to keep their word, you need to do the same. If you want people to be responsive, you need to be responsive as well. If you want people to listen to you, you need to listen to them. Model the behavior you want to see and you’ll always have the high ground.
These tips are simple. They are not easy, but they can be learned. All it takes is practice. If you’re having a problem with one particular person, find someone with whom you can practice. This gives you a safe space for “do-overs” — we rarely get these conversations right the first time — and the confidence to incorporate these principles into your everyday life. It’s well worth the effort. What techniques have worked well with you in dealing with difficult people? Please share below — I’d love to have some new tactics in my own arsenal!