We all deal with difficult people. In fact, before we begin pointing fingers, those difficult people could very well be us from time to time. As leaders—err, as human beings, really—we don’t always see eye to eye with those around us. It’s unavoidable that we encounter moments where the person we’re serving, collaborating with or leading causes difficulties. And as leaders, we must identify strategies to help us effectively navigate such a person.
Dealing with people who we consider unreasonable can be an extremely stressful, exhausting and thorny experience. If these encounters are not properly managed, they can escalate out of control and bring stress for ourselves and our teams, and distract from the mission of our work. Here are three strategies that will help increase your success rate in addressing difficult people.
1. Listen with empathy.
Columnist Doug Larson once said, “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you'd have preferred to talk.” TWEET
It is unimaginable how many problems the underutilize skill of listening can solve. No less relevant is its function in diffusing difficult situations. Our built-in survival mechanism, the fight-flight-freeze response, naturally places us in a position of self-defense during our interactions with others.
Instead of listening to provide empathy, the tendency may be to do so with the intention to defend ourselves with a sharp comment or clever comeback. Listening with our heart is what we should aim for rather than entirely with our brain.
Part of being a great listener is staying in the moment so that the person who is being difficult knows we care. When we truly listen, we make it about the other person instead of about ourselves. This gives us the ability to pick up on all cues, both verbal and nonverbal, and allows us to subsequently repeat what was said in an accurate way.
2. Keep calm and take a deep breath.
It can be a challenge to remain poised and composed during interactions with someone who is uncooperative. While it is important to empathize, avoid taking on the emotions of the other person as it can be counterproductive and cause unnecessary stress and anxiety for you both. When the person is angry and you lose your cool and also get angry, the situation only escalates. This is the last thing we want in such a circumstance.
One of the best ways to lower stress is to practice deep breathing. This is a simple yet effective way of relaxing the body. It affects your entire physiology, sending the brain the signal that we are relaxed and have things under control. When we are calm, we can be more in control of the situation, think more clearly and make better decisions.
3. Neutralize the moment by giving them what they want, if possible.
Problematic people will seek to undermine our work and worth. I strongly believe that the things we see on the outside are mere symptoms of what’s going on deep within. What is their mindset? What are their thoughts? What do they fear most?
One of the most effective tools in dealing with someone who is difficult is neutralizing them. Do this by identifying the source of their dissonance and counter that by giving them what they want, if possible.
For example, a very strong and influential person was identifying all the negatives about some initiatives I had undertaken. I quickly discerned that her concerns weren’t about what I was or wasn't doing; it was more about her fear of losing her influence with some members of the community. In my capacity as the leader, I invited her to lead on an upcoming initiative. Initially, her proud boldness turned to humility, then a smile of gratitude. It was clear she was now warmer to me. She realized my intention wasn’t to steal the show but to give everyone a chance to shine.
In our bid for a successful engagement with difficult people, remember to focus on the solution, not on the problem. It takes time and effort to skillfully maneuver how to work with such a person, but the result is well worth the endeavor.
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