“Difficult people are the greatest teachers” – Pema Chodron, Buddhist Monk

I’ve spent the bulk of my career working in high-pressure corporate environments managing a broad range of personalities. While I worked well with most people, I occasionally encountered individuals, whether they were my manager, my peers or direct reports, whom I found challenging to deal with.

Over time, I learned to recognise the early warning signs and find appropriate ways to manage the person and situations caused by this conflict.

Here are five things I’ve learned.

1.     The 50% Rule

It’s important to realise that you can’t control someone else’s behaviour. Plus, that it takes two to tango. I’m not advocating that you assume full responsibility, but there needs, to be an honest consideration regarding your contribution to the relationship breakdown. So, remember to ask yourself  “what is my 50%?”.

I’ve found in many workplaces; issues can often be caused by the build-up of smaller problems and exchanges that leave people dissatisfied. This can then quickly escalate to becoming a major issue. Therefore, it’s important to pick up on these cues and be proactive by understanding what your 50% is to change the situation.

2.     Give yourself a check-up from the neck up.

An ex-colleague of mine once used this phrase before engaging in a difficult conversation. What she was referring to is to make sure you approach a difficult conversation with a clear and rational mindset. Never deal with issues when you’re upset or feel like you’re losing control. A balanced perspective helps you remain calm and not feed off other people’s emotions.

Plus, try to view the situation from the other person’s perspective. What are their motivations? Where is this coming from? Developing this ability to step back and look at the overall picture will mean that you’re better equipped to problem solve and de-escalate the situation.

3. Stop avoiding and start communicating

Many people have a natural aversion to conflict and find themselves avoiding people or situations they find confronting. Turning to non-communication (Slack, email, etc.) seems like a natural alternative. But while it works to prevent face to face engagement, electronic messages are impersonal and too easy to misinterpret. They can then lead to long conversation chains without real outcomes and can make a situation even more challenging and convoluted.

I suggest to my clients to schedule a one on one, in-person meeting. This allows both opinions to be heard and discussed. Active listening is crucial in this situation, concentrate, understand and respond. Write down key points for both of you to work on. Organise a follow-up session to discuss how things are progressing.

4. Guard your self-confidence 

The worst experiences I had with difficult people were emotionally draining, prolonged and made me doubt my abilities. As hard as it is, you can’t take this personally. In these situations, you need to first assess your insecurities and see if any of them are unnecessarily playing out. Secondly, objectively examine your skills. If you’re receiving consistent feedback around a particular area, you need to assess whether this is feedback is accurate. If in doubt you can ask others you trust to provide an opinion on your work and skills in this particular area. Also, remember that you have a lot of great skills that might not be getting utilised in these situations. Remember, it’s not what they say about you that matters, it’s what you say about you that matters.

5. Seek support early and frequently

These interactions can be emotionally draining and if mismanaged can have detrimental impacts on your career. As such find help from relevant people early on, whether it’s your human resource representative, a lawyer (depending on the severity) or a trusted friend and advisor. Always remember there is a difference between being difficult or demanding and bullying. You don’t need to work through this alone and getting outside perspective will give you different viewpoints on how to handle the situation

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