Matters Column

Learning how to deal (and coexist) with difficult people

January 31, 2014
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I am admittedly more patient than most in weighing someone’s “positives” against their “negatives.”

As long as an individual contributes more good than bad, I will probably appear to be relatively tolerant and encouraging in whatever they try to do, even if I may be frustrated at the pace of their work or the quality of their decisions. I tend to focus on results rather than on recognition — as long as the objective is accomplished, why worry about receiving praise or credit? 

Some people, however, would think differently, often loudly and abrasively, becoming what we might label as being “rather difficult.”

Difficult people like to speak their mind and get their way. They do not like to be told "no," even if there is a solid, rational reason — and if the reason is not their own, they will probably not accept it easily. Their contributions to the whole are often minimized by a general lack of acceptance. A group does not like a cocky know-it-all or one who never gives recognition to others, regardless of how valuable that person’s contribution may be. 

Difficult people tend to talk more than they listen, to act more than they refrain, and to cover their own inadequacies by dwelling on the shortcomings of others. They tend to be argumentative, talking over those around them rather than to them, perfectly willing to wear others down rather than discussing alternatives. 

Rather than raising their own level of performance, difficult people tend to establish themselves as the "bar" that must be reached, attempting to keep others below this target by diminishing their character and minimizing their ability to contribute by openly negating any suggestions they might advance. 

Difficult people focus on themselves and their own actions, feelings or ways of doing things, often losing sight of common goals or reaching shared visionary destinations.

When dealing with difficult people (and their behavior), many people:

  • Ignore them (hoping they will go away);
  • Minimize conflict by listening to them (whether or not they intend to act on what is said);
  • Avoid interacting with them whenever possible (covertly or overtly);
  • Resist until beaten down enough that doing things their way is a better alternative than arguing anymore; or
  • Worry themselves sick about the problem (essentially paralyzing their ability to act independently).

Rather than addressing a behavior or issue, people find it much easier to close their eyes, ears and mouths than take exception to another’s behavior or initiate change. By avoiding the obvious and escaping into an internal "safe place" that causes others to suffer with us when we ignore the pain and accept the result, we do not resolve the issue of coexisting with difficult people.

To effectively deal with difficult people, we must:

  • Listen to those speaking to identify their true strengths, abilities and/or talents, particularly those masked by an abrasive personality or an unbending personal resolve.
  • Identify a common goal, talk about how we are going to get there, discuss what road signs we should see along the way to verify our direction, and define both rewards and consequences should the path less acceptable be taken.
  • Diffuse the sense of “personal superiority,” replacing it with one of at least passive acceptance of others.
  • Find and publicly acknowledge the positives people contribute while acknowledging but minimizing the negatives their behavior can create.
  • Speak more in generalities than specifics. Difficult people love to argue points that demonstrate their superiority. Focus more on concepts than facts —  more on outcomes than methods or processes — to diffuse, rather than escalate, a difficult conversation.
  • Assign ownership to actions and then establish clearly and concisely who is in charge, who is responsible and what rewards or consequences will result from completion or failure of the task — NOT who will be blamed or who will receive the credit.
  • Establish only consequences you are willing to administer. Never say you will or will not do something or else — unless you are willing to do whatever “or else” you promised as a consequence to the undesirable action. Making hollow threats and conditions minimizes your credibility, your ability to manage and tarnishes the respect others have for you.

We all face situations in which people we work with are more difficult than others. Moving forward together, maximizing the strengths that different people bring to the mix while minimizing the weaknesses that are bound to surface allows us to perpetuate success. 

Effective personal relationships and fully functioning teams share a common bond: Both must identify a common goal, create a single focus, develop processes or actions that can be monitored and maintained, clearly define expectations that can be measured and acknowledge that someone has the responsibility to monitor actions, provide oversight and address deficiencies. 

Taking the path of least resistance when dealing with a problem can make our “here and now” a relatively peaceful place, but ignoring the negatives a situation or individual creates through their unresolved bad behavior can make even the most agreeable people in our lives difficult to work with.

David Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.

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