When I started teaching conflict resolution skills many years ago, I believed that simply using those skills would solve most problems. I was naïve. People kept coming to me and saying something like, “Eric, these skills are great, but what do you do about the person who is just DIFFICULT?”
After some years of experience, I realized that they were right. Dealing with a difficult person requires more than having good conflict resolution skills. Here are 5 tips that I have learned.
Tip #1 – Change Your Thinking
To deal with a difficult person, we have to start with ourselves. Here’s why. How we think has a direct bearing on how we act. How we act influences what the other person experiences. Their experience of us affects how they then (re)act towards us.
When I tell myself or others that my difficult person is passive-aggressive (or fill in the blank with your person), I begin to wear a lens that colors the way I see all of their actions. It becomes easier and easier to see everything they do as further evidence that they are passive-aggressive.
Tip #2 – Don’t Assassinate Their Character
Secondly, when I say to myself (or others) that someone is passive-aggressive, I have essentially assassinated their character. If I confront someone with, “You are passive-aggressive,” I will almost certainly get a defensive response.
Instead, focus on behaviour and the impact of their behaviour on you. Focusing on behaviour is about what they are doing, not what they are. When you focus on what they do and the impact of their behaviour, you now have a place to start the conversation that is based on observable facts. Observable facts can be discussed. Personality assassination cannot.
Tip #3 – Get Curious
Let’s do a little thought experiment: Picture yourself in a room full of people. The presenter asks everyone to raise their hand if they think they are a reasonable person. What do you do?
Next, the presenter asks everyone to raise their hand if they think they are a difficult person. What do you do?
When I have asked this question to rooms full of people, everyone raises their hand that they are reasonable. And it is usually only the people looking for a laugh who raise their hands when asked if they are difficult. What does this tell you? It tells me that everyone sees themselves as reasonable, including the person you or I find difficult.
If the difficult person views their behaviour as reasonable, then our task is to begin to wonder how their behaviour makes sense in their mind. This wondering helps me move from my judgment – They are passive-aggressive! – to curiosity – I wonder why they aren’t feeling safe enough to directly tell me what they think? Curiosity gives me the ability to start a conversation with a question and to listen.
Tip #4 – Have a Safe Conversation
If you have worked on your thinking, and if you have parked your judgement for the time being, you are on your way to having a more productive conversation.
But there is more you can do. Ask yourself, “How can I make this conversation psychologically safe for both us?” Another way to think about this is to move your mindset from brutal honesty, to safe honesty. Safe honesty focuses on behaviour, our patterns of interacting and the humanity of each us.
Safe conversations focus on our values and what we need in our relationship. Start your conversation in a way that builds safety for both you. For example you could say, “I am committed to making our work relationship as good as possible, and I know you want what’s best for us all as well. In that spirit, I want to ask you…”
Tip #5 – Don’t Lose Sight of the Pattern
One of the easiest mistakes to make is to lose sight of the pattern and focus on the most recent incident or incidents.
Focusing on the most recent incident doesn’t help the other person see how serious this is for you. They may think it is an isolated thing that is easily explained by what was happening that day. Instead, we need to stay focused on that pattern.
You might say something like this, “I’ve noticed that over the last several months when we have a conversation about developing our new service, you respond with a statement about how that will never work. Then you usually leave the room. This leaves me feeling stuck and frustrated. I’d like to figure out what is happening in our exchange and how we can do it differently.”
Tip #6 – Remember that You Have Contributed to the Problem
What I do almost always has some influence on the outcome of my conversation or interaction with another person. They will believe that their actions are justified based on my behavior.
To really change the actions of a person we find difficult, we need to also examine how we have contributed. The best way to do that is to ask them. Then we need to be prepared to listen, manage our defensiveness, and commit to acting in ways that better serve the other person and our own interests.
Yes, there really are people that many of us would find difficult. However, those same people do not see themselves that way.
To work with them, we must change our thinking and focus on actions, not character. Then we can move to curiosity about what motivates them to act in that way. Curiosity leads us to empathy and to a more open way of beginning a conversation. During the conversation, we focus on the pattern and how we each contribute to that pattern. Ultimately, we should leave a conversation with a plan for how we can interact to get better results.
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