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Dealing with Difficult People
By: The Executive's Edge

There’s no escaping the fact that they come into everyone’s lives at one time or another. Sometimes they come in the form of an unhappy or hard-to-get-along-with client, customer, or co-worker. And sometimes they’re just someone we happen to come in contact with like a store clerk. Whoever they are, they can cause anxiety, frustration, concern, or anger in us.

Sometimes the best way to deal with a difficult person is to avoid them altogether – give them wide berth. But often we don’t have that option. The difficult person is someone we simply have to deal with. Most people would say that in those situations, we have three options. These options are: 1) Try to change ourselves, 2) Try to change the other person, and 3) Resolve to tolerate the situation – basically decide to put up with them. I’d like to suggest that there’s a fourth, very effective option as well. Let’s spend some time discussing these four options.

1) Try to Change Ourselves Your first instinct might be, “Why should I be the one to change?” In fact quite often you’ll find that to be an appropriate response! Often there is nothing about what we do or say to cause the other person to be difficult. But sometimes we are. Haven’t you had people in your life who just rubbed you the wrong way? I think we all have. If you’ve had people in your life who cause you to become difficult or obstinate, then doesn’t it stand to reason that you may be causing that same reaction in someone? How do you find out whether you’re the cause of the other person’s difficult behavior? Option 4 holds the answer.

2) Try to Change the Other Person In Option 1 – Try to Change Ourselves – our initial instinct was to ask, “Why should I be the one to change?” Our first reaction was one of justification. Basically saying, “I’m not the one with the problem…” Guess what happens when we try to change the other person? You got it. They have the same reaction we would have had. Everyone feels justified in their behavior. No one intends to behave arbitrarily or irrationally. We always have a reason for acting the way we do. Attempting to force the other person to change doesn’t work. Just ask any spouse! No one will change anything about themselves until and unless they choose to do so. Option 4 holds the answer.

3) Decide to Put Up with Them “Tolerate it.” “Just deal with it.” The only thing that accepting things the way they are accomplishes is to postpone a confrontation. Although this course of action (or inaction) appears to avoid a confrontation, in fact what it does is eliminate any chance of dialogue and replaces it with a certain confrontation down the road. Even though this path is frequently taken, it has some far-reaching unhappy consequences.

You You end up spending valuable energy by deciding to tolerate this person. It takes energy to deal with a poor situation – energy which you need for other, more positive and productive efforts. In addition, by tolerating this person, your attitude suffers. Although we decide to tolerate it, we don’t ignore it. By dwelling on the thing that irritates us so much, we give it fuel and we diminish our attitude.

The Other Person Think about this for a minute… No one sets out to do a poor job. Everyone starts out intending to do a good job. They have a positive attitude and high aspirations. Nevertheless, sometimes things change. They become complacent, lose interest, and experience a drop in attitude. Why is that? If you reflect back to that time, you’ll find one of two reasons for this shift. One reason is that the work you were doing really didn’t interest you. Think about the implications of this. It means that even if we’re really good at the work we do, we may actually find it unenjoyable. Work would become unfulfilling. The other reason we might have become complacent, lost interest, and experienced a drop in attitude is that we became disillusioned with someone or something. In situations where integrity is an issue is there a way to make things better? Not in the near term. Maybe never. In situations where the reality of the situation is a different one than was first imagined, is there a way to make things better? Maybe. Option 4 holds the answer.

Your Team It never fails. A manager tolerates a difficult person for an extended time, hoping they’ll “come around” and hoping to avoid a confrontation. Then finally something happens – some event or challenge - and they feel they have no choice but to confront them which, by that point, leads to a termination. And then the manager is surprised at the number of team members who come forth and comment on what a drag on the team that person had been. Your people are aware of most of the things going on around them, just like you are. Tolerating a difficult person doesn’t work in the long run.

4) Work to Understand Their Motivation This option is about being a leader and being an effective communicator. It’s about being compassionate and strong at the same time. It’s about being good for someone rather than being good to them. It’s about understanding rather than telling.

This solution is about taking the time to understand the other person’s motivation for acting the way they do. If you’re effective at this, you’ll be able to either help them change their perspective on things or help them to move on to something that better suits them. This solution is about helping people grow and maximize their talents.

How do you come to understand the motivation for their actions and attitude? Just ask. Ask why they act the way they do. Usually they’ll be more than happy to tell you. If their answer seems odd or incorrect, you need to keep asking questions to get at the heart of the issue so you can either shift their perspective or help them move on. Once you’re at the core issue you have the ability to make a difference in their life.

Written by Michael Beck, President of Exceptional Leadership, Inc. a firm which develops high-performance leaders through leadership enhancement and executive coaching. Michael can be reached at 877-977-8956 or , and you can learn more about the company and these ideas at Permission to reprint with full attribution. © 2004 Exceptional Leadership, Inc.

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