Dealing with Difficult People

In the work environment, it is rare to find a job or role in an organization that does not have some interaction with people. Supervisors and customer service professionals have made it their career to interact with people, and roles we think of as fairly isolated still rub shoulders with people in some capacity. Even the lonely truck driver is in contact with people as they navigate the highways and encounter other drivers. We all interact with people, and learning to make that interaction as positive as possible is important for our career and overall personal wellbeing. 

For the most part, working with people is a positive experience. We accomplish things together, we share experiences, and we often feel the satisfaction of helping someone by meeting their needs with a product or service. Our interaction with people can be the most rewarding aspect of our job. Yet it can also be the most challenging, especially when we are faced with an adversarial person. Here are a few principles to keep in mind when faced with a challenging interpersonal situation. 

We can all be difficult: We should not be surprised when we find ourselves on the receiving end of a difficult conversation or interaction because we’ve all been there, and if we are honest with ourselves, there have been times when we have been the difficult person. When faced with a difficult person we should take pause, try and understand their perspective, and work to consider the situation objectively. Though there is never an excuse for bad behavior, we should remember that negative emotions are part of the human condition. It’s good sometimes to simply extend some grace and give ourselves and others permission to be imperfect human beings as we seek to find a solution to a conflict.   

Ignore your fight or flight response: Conflict can elicit a type of fight or flight response, and both responses will result in additional conflict. To resolve the situation, we need to find a balance between trying to win the argument and rolling over in defeat.

For those who tend to gravitate toward “fight”, we often find the common reaction is  to push back, or worse, become defensive. Though the response to fighting back is natural, it never helps. In fact, it often adds fuel to an already heated situation.

In a flight response, people who feel caught off guard may be tempted to just ignore the issue. This type of response may defuse the situation in the short term, but it prevents one from getting to the bottom of the issue and finding a long term resolution. It is important to seek out facts and objectify the situation as much as possible rather than just walking away. If the situation is not resolved, it will likely return in another context.

Giving the person some space and allowing them time to calm down, followed by some simple open ended questions can help them see their situation more objectively, as well as help us see the grid by which the difficult person is seeing the world. Take a step back and ask open ended questions such as “what is most concerning to you” or “how can I try and make this right for you”. This type of approach is not passive, it is actively working to create objectivity in an emotionally charged situation. Focusing on the facts can help both sides compromise and find a reasonable solution.

Hurting people tend to hurt people: When someone is being difficult, it is important to remember there is likely something driving their negative actions and words. If we are dealing with a difficult or challenging person, we should remember this principal and extend some reasonable grace. 

Consider the lonely truck driver that was mentioned earlier. He or she could be driving along, minding their own business when another motorist cuts them off. If the actions of the motorist causes the truck driver to miss an exit, make a late delivery, or even worse, cause an accident, it’s very easy to cast unqualified judgement on the driver at fault. However, that driver’s situation is unknown, and right or wrong, they may feel justified in their actions. They may have just lost a spouse, had difficulty getting the grieving kids up for school, and be facing a job loss if they are late for work. If we can remember that hurt is often a factor in negative behavior, it is easier for us to deal with the behavior, and we’ll be less likely to push back in an inappropriate way. Generally, we never know the whole picture, and the source of the person’s discontent is probably very complex, but it helps to remember that negative actions are often influenced by some aspect of pain in the life of the difficult person.                             

There are two sides to every circumstance and agreement can only happen if both sides express themselves and seek to understand each other’s perspectives. In doing so, we can then work to create objectivity in our conversation which will likely reduce negative emotions. This is the first step toward creating a reasonable resolution to conflict.

About the Author

Shawn Miller is a principal at Morrison working primarily in our People Solutions practice. To get in touch with Shawn, please find contact information for Morrison here.


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